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It all began with a missing sheet of homework. "Contractions," my son had written very clearly in his assignment log. "What's this?" I asked when he announced he'd finished everything else, noting that there was no book or worksheet to which the reference logically applied. "Don't know," replied my son.

I was off to the races, astride my high horse, afroth with my mission of dutiful motherhood, my son sniveling that he had No Idea what it meant.

"The teacher made you write it down, n'est-ce pas?"

"Yes, but..."

"No buts--I am calling for reinforcements." So we called his best friend. No Idea. Aha, I thought, the two of them must be in league. We called his next best friend. No Idea. Three in league? Better try the girls, girls are sober, reliable, always bright as buttons. But girls were not home, out sick, at gymnastics, No Idea.

I called my mother: How will he ever get to college at this rate, I moaned. "Is this a joke or are you working out for the high blood pressure Olympics?" she asked quietly.

By 6 o'clock, I gave up, took two aspirin and went off to a school board meeting. Most unfortunate for my throbbing temples, gifted and talented programs were the topic of the evening, and the room was packed with parents, 100 percent of whom were banking on the hope that their children were in the ninety-ninth percentile. An expensive array of options was on the table, products and "packages," computer programs and reading lists. It was a veritable Tupperware party of the education industry, but what most people seemed to want most was A Separate Class.

One of the things I get to do in my profession is travel around to schools and talk about the benefits of equal access in all its forms. I find myself increasingly concerned that a kind of triage mentality has settled over schools, a vise of constraint that has led to a bottom-dollar hunt for top students. Triage is a theory that makes a certain sense in extremely dire settings where such a cruel cost-benefit analysis has the remote moral justification of salvage-under-fire. That educational opportunity should at all resemble such a configuration in this, the wealthiest and most technologically developed country on the planet, speaks of a deep and troubling class divide.

I cannot help thinking of this as I read headlines about libraries being shut, public universities shrinking, school music programs disappearing everywhere. I cannot help thinking about this as I sit in yet another roomful of parents desperately touting their children's special attributes, waving credentials about as though clawing their way up from the steerage deck of the Titanic.

The guest expert at this particular meeting defined "gifted" as the top 3 or 4 percent of the population, although that particular cutoff reflected a monetary limit, rather than any rational relation to the potential of a child "only" in the ninety-fifth percentile. In a different district there might be enough money to provide services for only the top 1 percent; in yet another, for the top tenth.

But I can't help believing that in a world of universally well-funded education, schools could provide for almost all their students much of the enrichment that is now reserved only for the most endowed. We seem to have forgotten that there are many successful models in which all levels are accommodated, in which neither gifted nor special education students are segregated but are given materials that both educate and engage; programs where individual differences in ability can be negotiated in small classes, by teachers who are well-educated and well-supported.

As I glanced around the room, I did the math that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: A Separate Class for the top 3 or 4 percent would mean that no more than one or two students in a given grade would have access to the truly wonderful materials being discussed--materials from which any child could profit. There will be a heap of hurt feelings if this plan comes to pass. But more important to the state of our union, it is wasteful of precious human resources. It is inconceivable to me why we Americans can't cough up enough money so that the "bottom" 95 percent are exposed to Shakespeare and calculus and music theory from as young an age as possible. If they can't all write a concerto by the time they're 7, at least a whole lot more of them will be able to enjoy one.

While I think programs and materials for the gifted are fine and good, I worry about meetings like this in which the dominant sentiment is that the only way to educate the gifted is to remove them from the company of mere mortal riff-raff. In a world where public schools are shuddering beneath hatcheted budget cuts, gifted programs have become a kind of status symbol, the equivalent of those new "designer" medical practices where doctors charge exorbitant fees to make themselves available to only a few patients for round-the-clock cell-phone access and midnight consultations.

The board meeting ended with a description of how a special class for the gifted had helped maximize the strengths of one particular child described as "brilliant but unmotivated"--a child of such genius that he was too preoccupied to get to school before the day was half over. His tardiness was so great that the teacher would actually go to his house in the morning and drag him to school herself. Hmm, I thought. What a wonderful world it would be if we put together the resources to push all children with such unyielding solicitude.

When I got home, I checked my e-mail to find a note from my son's teacher explaining that she had simply forgotten to give the children the worksheet on contractions. All the tension drained from me. Education has become such an awfully anxious rat race. I kissed my son--who in the meantime had come up with the inventive theory that contractions are the physical product of any given page of long division--on the tip of his nose. How lucky our worries. How perfect the children.

Ever since the 1954 Brown decision outlawing "separate but equal" schools, various popular movements have upheld a vision of public schools as essential to democracy and have demanded legal protections for those previously marginalized--from Title IX prohibitions against gender-based discrimination, to the right to a bilingual education, to the inclusion of students with disabilities in public school classrooms, to the demand that public schools respect the rights of gay and lesbian students. On February 20 the Supreme Court took up a case that could lead to an about-face on this half-century of struggle.

The Justices heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Cleveland in which tax dollars pay for tuition at private schools. Roughly 4,300 Cleveland students currently receive vouchers, and 99.4 percent of them attend religious schools. The case's significance goes beyond vouchers to whether public education will be replaced by a marketplace system in which the role of the public is limited to making an individual "choice" to attend a particular school. The case also holds enormous potential to further George W. Bush's "faith based" initiatives promoting religious groups in the redefinition and privatization of the public sector.

The legal heart of the Cleveland case is whether the voucher program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government endorsement of religion. The Justices are sharply divided, and many observers expect the Court to issue a narrow ruling on the specifics of the Cleveland case. But even a narrow holding would have broad ramifications.

Vouchers have been a bedrock of the conservative agenda to privatize education and provide public dollars for private religious education. The ability to move that agenda forward, however, has been hampered by the legal cloud over vouchers. To gain support, voucher supporters have fostered the image that vouchers are merely a way to provide options to low-income minority parents whose children are trapped in failing urban schools. But if the Court accepts the pro-voucher argument that there is no government endorsement of religion because the voucher goes to parents, that reasoning can extend to all parents regardless of income. It can also extend to social services other than education.

Should the Cleveland case pass constitutional muster, one of the immediate issues facing the voucher movement is how to make the move to universal vouchers without jeopardizing the political capital it's gained by seeming to befriend low-income minorities. The perception is that the Cleveland voucher program is aimed at African-Americans, but that's wrong. African-Americans constitute 71 percent of the students in the Cleveland public schools, yet they account for only 53 percent of voucher students. Whites, meanwhile, make up 19 percent of Cleveland's public school students but 29 percent of voucher students.

For voucher opponents, a Supreme Court decision upholding the Cleveland program will move the battle from the courts to the policy arena. Two issues will immediately come to the fore--money and accountability. The money issue is simple. Taxpayer support for education is limited, particularly during recessionary times, and the money that goes to private schools will reduce taxpayer willingness to fund public schools. This will undercut the movement for funding equity for urban public schools and diminish funds for such important reforms as smaller classes, improved teacher quality and reducing the achievement gap between whites and African-Americans and Latinos. Vouchers also undermine the calls for greater accountability. If the government tries to impose the same accountability on voucher schools as on public schools, it runs the risk of excessive "entanglement" in religion, violating church/state separation.

As voucher attorney Clint Bolick has argued, regulation of voucher schools "should be limited. It should not include any state oversight of curriculum, personnel or administration. Any program that creates extensive involvement by the state in the schools' internal affairs is likely to be found an unconstitutional excessive entanglement." In Milwaukee, home to the country's oldest and largest voucher program, accountability is so lax that no academic data have been collected from voucher schools for more than six years. As a result, no one knows how students in voucher schools are performing academically. Furthermore, the voucher schools don't have to provide the same level of services for special education students or students who don't speak English. Because constitutional rights like due process are not applicable in private schools, voucher schools can suspend or expel students at will.

Many people don't appreciate the threat vouchers pose. Who can disagree that public schools, particularly in urban areas, fail too many students? But it would be shortsighted to abandon public education and accept the myth that vouchers and privatization are the answer. Public education tries to fulfill our vision of a more democratic America, with public institutions responsible to, and controlled by, the public. The voucher movement betrays that vision. It treats education as a mere consumer item and asks us to settle for the "choice" to apply to a private school that itself does the choosing.

They're looking for help with college and a reason to believe in government.

As the chairman of Artemis Records, the company that released Cornel West's CD, Sketches of My Culture, I considered criticizing Cornel for his association with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard. Without ever listening to it, Summers attacked West merely for having released a CD, dismissing the entire universe of recorded music as being "unworthy of a Harvard professor." But like most record executives, I'm more tolerant of unorthodox associations than Summers, so I'll continue to judge West by his work and the inspiration it provides.

Among the flurry of press reports sparked by the controversy--most of which alluded to the alleged "rap CD"--quite a few couldn't get the facts straight. The New Republic claimed that West "has spent more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work." In fact, West has canceled only one class in twenty-six years of teaching, and that was several years ago, to deliver a lecture in Ethiopia. West recorded the CD during a leave--a long-established privilege in academia. (Summers himself took a leave from a professorship at Harvard to work for the World Bank.)

A Summers aide has said that the confrontation with West was a "terrible misunderstanding," but it's possible that Summers knew exactly what he was doing, using West the way Bill Clinton used Sister Souljah: to placate conservative elements of his constituency. Not only did Summers harshly criticize West's published work, he acknowledged that he had not read any of it or listened to the CD. Moreover, it's obvious that what disturbs Summers is not the notion of a Harvard professor engaging in political activity but West's particular beliefs: He criticized West's involvement with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton, but Summers himself supported Al Gore (as did West's friend and supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department). Summers has been silent as his supporters have misrepresented West's record and called him names. Two examples: The National Review's Rod Dreher referred to West as a "clownish minstrel" and the New York Daily News's Zev Chafetz called him "a self-promoting lightweight with a militant head of hair."

West's decision to record a CD is in keeping with a commitment to spread his ideals and ideas as far and wide as possible. His book Race Matters has sold more than 350,000 copies and is one of the most influential books on race of the past couple of decades. His other works are used as texts in college classes around the world. There is no other public figure who is welcome in academia, in the media, in both conventional and activist politics and in the religious world.

By the way, Sketches of My Culture is not a "rap" CD. West, like most contemporary music critics, acknowledges that hip-hop is a vital cultural language. But Sketches itself is a concept album that is predominantly spoken word surrounded by r&b music, a montage that includes limited and focused uses of hip-hop language. Like any work of art, it's open to legitimate criticism, but it is clearly a serious attempt to use a modern art form to grapple with the themes that have animated West's career: black history, spirituality and political morality. There is not a word of profanity on it.

The indefatigable West has reached out to poor communities, moderating the crucial final panel at a recent "Rap Summit" and appearing on urban radio shows that had never been graced by the presence of an academic. I have seen the faces of young people inspired by West's linking of their own aspirations to the civil rights struggle and to the great philosophical and religious traditions. He urges them to live up to those examples. It has said something to the broader American community about Harvard that Cornel West is a professor there, and it will say something about Harvard if he is not.

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