AUSTIN, Texas -- We've already seen how disgusting the results can be when politicians drag religion into politics, so perhaps we should be depressed at the news that education is going to be the major issue in this year's presidential campaign. Lord save the children.

However (she observed with lunatic cheerfulness), perhaps some good can come of it. Right away, I can think of a dandy demonstration project that could settle at least one significant policy difference.

One of George W. Bush's big applause lines is: And if a school is failing, we should cut its money. He wants to take all Title I money away from low-performing schools -- and give it in the form of vouchers to the families of disadvantaged students. The parents could then use the vouchers (worth about $1,500 per student) to pay for after-school tutoring or to help pay for private-school tuition.

If a school is failing, take away some of its money ...

Somehow that doesn't strike me as a recipe for dramatic improvement in said school. I see the point: We don't want to "reward failure" by putting money into failing schools. But I really cannot see how spending less money on a bad school is going to help it.

Fortunately, we can test this out. The politically late Bill Bradley called for doubling the Title I program -- money that theoretically (but not always) goes to schools serving large concentrations of poor people.

Let's say we take two failing schools -- or even groups of failing schools. We cut funding for the first group, as per W. Bush, but we put more money into the second group, as per Bradley, Al Gore and Bill Clinton.

We start by fixing the roofs so they don't leak, replacing broken windows and getting working lights. The reports on antiquated and run-down schools in this country have an almost Dickensian quality -- far too many are dirty, dark and dangerous. Anyone asking for money to fix them is left feeling like Oliver Twist asking, "Please, sir, I want some more," in the poorhouse.

"More! Oliver Twist has asked for more! That boy will be hung."

Well, suppose we try more at a few of these schools, just to see what happens. Suppose we give them enough money to hire more teachers, so the class sizes can be reduced -- enough money to hire experienced teachers with good records.

After a few years, we can compare the schools where we spent less money and the schools where we spent more money and see what happened. What do you think?

Not that all the problems can be solved by throwing money at them -- horrors to Betsy, I would never suggest a simplistic liberal notion like that. I just want to see what would happen in the above experiment.

Peter Schrag, writing in The Nation, notes that conservatives, with the help of some business leaders, "gradually managed to convert not only the issue of economic equity but a whole range of liberally oriented children's issues -- health care, welfare, nutrition, preschools, day-care, decent housing, recreation opportunities, inner-city youth and job programs -- into a debate focused almost exclusively on education and tougher-standards school reform, emphasizing not resources, but outcomes."

Trouble is, that really does leave out a whole lot. The "socioeconomically disadvantaged," who are still called poor folks in Texas, really do need more than tougher school standards. Just for starters.

Head Start, the one Great Society program that even right-wingers agree has been a real success, has never been fully funded; that is to say, it is not available to tens of thousands of poor kids who qualify for it.

In addition, it's hard to teach a kid to read if (a) he can't see because he's never had his eyes examined to see if he needs glasses; (b) he's never had his hearing examined to see if he's got a hearing problem; (c) he comes to school every day without eating breakfast and can't afford lunch, either; (d) he suffers from malnutrition -- as we were recently reminded by an Ag Department study, this continues to be a problem, particularly right here in George W. Bush's Texas. Ending social promotion will not address these problems.

The downside to ending social promotion is clear: It increases the dropout rate. Three decades of research show repeaters leave eighth grade at the bottom of the scholastic heap. Students who are socially promoted do better than repeaters; the probability that students who repeat two grades will drop out is close to 100 percent.

Susan Ohanian, also writing in The Nation, reported:

"Los Angeles officials backpedaled quickly when they discovered that their rhetoric of 'no social promotion' could translate into 350,000 children being held back. Taxpayers who multiply an extra year in school by $5,000 to $7,500 per head might ask about alternatives. For starters, early intervention, a daily one-on-one in-school tutorial, costs about $1,500 per semester. Likewise, such reforms as integrated curriculums, alternative curriculums, after-school programs, nongraded groupings and senior citizen reading partners are a lot less expensive -- and more beneficial than forcing a child to repeat a grade."

What we have here is not conclusive proof that one thing works better than another -- just another warning to beware of simplistic slogans masquerading as answers to education problems.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.