AUSTIN, Texas -- Aside from the fact that they look like Howdy-Doody and Mr. Bluster, Dick Cheney appears to be an excellent choice for George W. Bush. Sounds moderate, governs right. Very W. Bush.

Cheney's voting record is slightly to the right of wiggy. Against a resolution to free Nelson Mandela after he had spent 23 years in prison? Against abortion to save the life of the mother? Against a ban on cop-killer bullets? Against Head Start and the Department of Education?

This was not in some prehistoric era when dinosaurs ruled Congress -- these votes were considered extreme at the time. Yet one hears commentators who dismiss Cheney's record as "irrelevant."

Speaking of the record, there's one that needs to be set straight. On a busy news day, an important education report by Rand, the California think tank, got relatively little coverage. That's a shame, because the study confirms hopeful news about how to improve the public schools. Rand says that smaller class sizes, enrolling more children in preschool, giving teachers more classroom materials and targeting additional money for poor children pay off.

The study shows that Texas is improving fast. Our scores are still slightly below the national average (27th of the 44 states that use the national tests); but we're moving up -- second in improvement on math scores, and our minority kids are outperforming others around the country.

So the governor stood up and took a bow. Excuse me.

The report was based on tests between 1990 and 1996. One thing we know about education reform is that it takes 10 to 20 years before we can see any results, before we can tell whether what we've tried is working.

The real story on how our schools rocketed from abysmal to only slightly below average in a mere 30 years starts in 1968, with a lawsuit. This time it was over the gross inequities in the way that rich kids and poor kids were being educated.

The Edgewood school district in San Antonio had schools with no textbooks, no chalk, even no toilet paper. The case got to the Supreme Court in 1974 and lost there, 5-4. So in 1984, Edgewood's attorneys patiently filed again in the state court system and started the long process of appeals all over.

During all that time, Edgewood was hanging over the Legislature, as one member said, "like the sword of Damocles hanging over Pandora's box." Everyone knew that something would have to be done about equalizing spending on the public schools, and everyone knew it would be a long, hard fight.

Gov. Mark White had the singularly bright idea to name Ross Perot to head a commission on reforming the schools. Perot understood one important thing: We would never get Texans to pay more for public schools unless we could guarantee them better schools and prove that we were getting them. Thus the system of testing and accountability was born.

Perot put together a package of reform bills that mandated smaller class sizes and expanded pre-kindergarten programs -- the most crucial reforms. Bob Bullock, then the state comptroller, worked out a formula for how the state could more equalize spending between rich and poor districts.

White called a special session to do nothing but education reform, and it was a donnybrook. One of Perot's reforms was "no-pass, no-play" -- if you weren't passing all your school subjects, you couldn't play football! It was a revolutionary notion in Texas.

Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby did heavy lifting for the reforms. Perot hired his own lobbyists to help pass the bills. It was a tremendous effort and a narrow win. Then the state went broke.

The oil crash of the mid-'80s left Texas in bad shape, so the equalization formula didn't advance much. The Edgewood case was still dragging on, and in 1987, Edgewood won at last.

In 1989, Gov. Bill Clements had to sign a huge tax increase to fund the agreement to equalize spending. Then came Son of Edgewood, with the courts again siding with the poor districts. Gov. Ann Richards proposed the Robin Hood plan, taking from rich districts to give to the poor. Another horrendous fight. A modified version of Robin Hood finally passed.

What the Rand story found was that despite all the screaming and yelling, what Texas did is what works: smaller class sizes, early childhood education (though we still don't have kindergarten statewide) and equalized spending.

After Bush gets through taking his bows, I'd like to salute the people who were there and did the work. Here's to Mark White and Ross Perot, Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock, all the Edgewood lawyers, Ann Richards, the heroes of the Lege -- Ernie Glossbrenner, Carl Parker, Paul Colbert, Paul Sadler and many more. All your hard work is paying off.

If it helps Bush become president, so be it.

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.