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Juan Williams: Education's grand bargain?

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A third of the nation’s black and Hispanic students do not graduate from high school. That makes any deal on education between two of the nation’s most politically powerful black men, President Obama and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a breakthrough waiting to happen.

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The damage being done to American children — and most of all to black American children — by bad schools is painfully obvious.

James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black person to enroll at the University of Mississippi, said in January that the nation is “losing millions of our children to inferior schools and catastrophically misguided … education reforms.” He said schools are being “hijacked by politicians … and for-profit operators.”

High rates of single-parent families and poverty complicate the sad picture of minority student failure. But it is also clear schools are failing to do their part.

Politicians, including Obama and Scott, are stuck in partisan paralysis even as they claim to understand the urgency to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity and solve this generation’s top civil rights problem.

The black Democrat and the black Republican are far from teaming up. They differ sharply on three hotly debated education reforms — first, over increased funding for preschool education; second, on calls for nationwide Common Core education standards; and finally, on giving parents publicly-funded vouchers to spend on the best school for their child.

In his recent State of the Union speech, the president said fewer than 30 percent of 4 year olds are in a good preschool program. He tied poor graduation rates, high rates of teen pregnancy and high criminal activity to children who lack preschool education. The president called for added federal funding for preschools.

The senator disagrees. The emphasis on early education strikes him as less important than improving outcomes for the entire elementary and secondary school experience. “I’m not opposed to early education, but I’m not supportive of the idea that people need to be taken care of cradle to grave,” the Tea Party Republican told me in an interview last week.

“I think the whole K-12 structure has to be studied and we have to find ways to achieve success at all stages of education,” he added.

Scott also opposes Common Core standards, seeing them as the intrusive hand of big government reaching into local schools. “There is a serious concern for those of us who find the national school board model not working well so far,” he said.

But the Obama administration, the U.S. military, the National Chamber of Commerce and several governors (including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, both Republicans) advocate the standards as one way to make sure children in all schools gain basic skills before looking for a job.

They also differ on vouchers. The president told my Fox News colleague and debating partner Bill O’Reilly that handing parents taxpayer money as vouchers, “didn’t make that much of a difference” to outcomes for poor students. He noted that “every study that’s been done on school vouchers, Bill, says that it has very limited impact if any. ”

Scott backs vouchers to increase competition for education dollars and invite innovations to correct the wretched record of failure. Scott, who dropped out of high school at one point in his life, suspects Democrats, including the president, are opposed to vouchers because of their ties to teachers’ unions who fear losing members and contracts if they lose their monopoly.

“No doubt it’s going to be a battle with the unions,” he told me, “but in the end, the question I have to ask myself is: If I was a student trapped in a failing school, facing the reality that the primary ticket to the American dream is education, I’d want somebody fighting for me.”

Scott and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have proposed the Scholarship for Kids Act, which redirects $24 billion in existing federal education funds for use as vouchers for low-income parents who want to get their children out of bad public schools.

The one point of agreement for the former senator from Illinois and the current senator from South Carolina is support of charter schools.

Last week, Obama said charters create an opportunity for “creative experiments by teachers, by principals, to start schools that have a different approach.”

Scott is reaching out to black Democrats on Capitol Hill to generate more support for charter schools.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Scott said. “For normal D.C. public schools the graduate rate is 56 percent but in opportunity [charter] schools it is 97 percent. When parents get a taste of success they want more. If we can get a marketing strategy, we’ll get strong results.”

Imagine the dramatic power of an Obama-Scott education bill. It has the potential to fly by the swamp of inaction caused by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core.

I have a dream today.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.

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