AUSTIN, Texas -- OK, let's try this again verrrrry slowly, class -- like Al Gore in his Mr. Rogers mode.

George W. Bush on education, supposedly his strong point, is making no sense. He is getting it all wrong and is dumbing down what could have been a really useful debate on how to fix the public schools.

For political reasons, he needs to claim that his little nostrums have more to do with the improvement in Texas public schools than the fundamental reforms made long before he showed up.

This is depressing and dangerous, and could well lead to our once again falling for some cute little quick-fix slogan (higher standards, end social promotion, vouchers, accountability, back to basics, phonics, school choice), while ignoring the real basics (smaller class sizes, more preschool programs, spending more on poor kids and better classroom equipment -- not to mention fixing the roofs and the windows).

Bush sneers at all this as "the bricks-and-mortar" approach, but it is precisely what accounts for the impressive improvement in Texas schools. We have soared from abysmal to only slightly below average, and we're darn proud of it. But it is strange to hear talking heads like Mary Matalin and Kate O'Beirne claiming, "Texas leads the nation in education." Get a grip.

Just a stray political thought here: Bush of all people should quit talking about ending social promotion. The man is the most prominent example of social promotion in the entire country. I can see the bumper sticker now: "End social promotion -- defeat Bush."

Back to basics. In the first place, why is Bush running for president on an education platform? Bush's first principle of education is "local control." OK, fine, local control means that the feds stay out of it. Has anyone told Bush that he's running for federal office?

Numero Two-o: If Bush does see a limited role for the federal government in education, why is he not supporting federal initiatives that would clearly m ake a difference?

President Clinton has once again proposed, as he has in various forms for several years now, a $25 billion tax proposal to help states fix up old schools and finance new ones. Between one-third and one-half of American schools are somewhere between dilapidated and flat falling apart, and we once again face higher enrollment than we have room for this year. This proposal has 226 House co-sponsors, which means it would obviously pass, but the Republican leadership (Dennis Hastert, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey) will not allow a vote on it.

The same trio is blocking funding for hiring 100,000 new teachers, which is the only way to get class size down, which -- if you had to name just one thing -- is the key factor in the improvement in Texas. (Texas is starting to slip backward on class size; according to The Dallas Morning News, we're facing at least 169 districts asking for exemptions from the 22-pupil limit for kindergarten through fourth grade.)

For people who really care about schools, there have been few more depressing developments than the Bush campaign's misuse of the recent study by the Rand think tank.

The study was based on national tests taken between 1990 and 1996. Bush became governor in 1995, and by 1996 he had barely seen the first budget he signed take effect. Here is the crucial factor: It takes at least 10 to 15 years for the effects of any educational reform to show up. Ergo, Bush had nothing to do with the improvements found by Rand. Let us once more praise Ross Perot, Mark White, Bill Hobby, etc.

Rand found Texas ranked 27th out of 44 states in averaged test scores, but it also found that when you adjust scores for family income (i.e., "socioeconomic status," which I think is fair to do), Texas kids do better than their counterparts in other states.

Our minority kids are especially improved. This is where we rank high -- not overall, but in most improved. We actually led in the math test for black fourth-graders compared to black students in other states, and our Hispanic kids were fifth.

As Texans know, it took a 25-year lawsuit to drag us here. When we talk about spending more money on minority kids, let's make it clear what happened: We were forced by the courts to spend (SET ITAL) as much (END ITAL) on minority and other poor kids as we do on middle-class kids. We more or less equalized spending among districts with the famously controversial Robin Hood bill -- as a result, the minority kids' scores shot up.

The Rand study was quite clear about what makes the difference: not just spending more money, but how you spend it -- smaller class sizes, more preschool and better classroom supplies. Bush and the Republicans are opposed to the very federal programs that would help with smaller class sizes and pre-kindergarten programs. Alas for teachers, increasing teacher salary doesn't seem to make much difference, but teacher turnover does.

That's what Rand says makes the difference, and here's what Bush says makes the difference, using this same study: "Strong focus on basic subjects, on early reading instruction, on clear standards, strong accountability and local control."

Sigh. That boy never was a very good student.

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.