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It's a situation that would make Samuel Beckett proud, something that carries the scent of one of his classic tragicomedies. Philadelphia officials and teachers bicker over a new contract. Parents worry about a looming teachers' strike and missed classroom time. Students smile at the thought of an unexpected vacation. But at the center of this whole to-do over pay raises and longer school days, of all this worrying and of all this media coverage, lies a cracked and broken school system -- something not worth fighting over. The absurdity of the situation is worthy of a chuckle. But what puts the "tragic" in this tragicomedy is the dire status of a public school system that serves over 220,000 kids, 28 percent of whom never graduate. Philadelphia's average SAT scores are 150 points below the national average, with the worst schools being up to 300 points under par. Inner-city kids, even the smart ones, waste away in schools that are overcrowded, structurally defective social jungles. Anyone who has spent time tutoring in a West Philadelphia school will tell you the same. Rather than word problems and English papers, kids have to worry about drugs and violence. Burnt-out teachers despair in the toughest assignment an educator will ever receive. And all the while, test scores fall and graduation ceremonies in half-empty gymnasiums become bittersweet. Education was supposed to be the great equalizer in this society, a way to give those with a little drive a chance to help themselves. But a kid in one of these schools has no shot at all, no chance to make it. He or she stays in the inner city and the cycle of poverty continues. That is why America should embrace a private school voucher system for our inner cities. For decades, we've been sinking money into city schools trying to fix a problem that only gets worse. We can't keep doing the same thing. Old problems demand new solutions. And really, what do we have to lose? Vouchers prove to be a win-win situation if you do the math. Let's say a family receives a $3,000-$5,000 voucher for a private school. The public system, which spends between $11,000 and $15,000 per student, picks up the tab for the voucher and makes a tidy profit. Now the cash-strapped and overcrowded public school has more money to spend on fewer kids, putting it on the road to recovery. Critics say that vouchers will drain funds from schools and will subsidize educations for the rich (as if the checks were headed for a mailbox marked Phillips Exeter). These arguments ring hollow when you see who is making them. What's causing the country's inertia on the voucher issue is the dead weight of the National Education Association and its influence on the Democratic Party. The NEA, the national teachers' union, is one of the largest organized labor groups in America, with over 2.5 million members. The union's worst nightmare is a new system that may leave it with no more excuses for poor performance and cost their ineffective members their jobs. On the strength of the union's campaign contributions, the NEA has made the Democratic Party and its highest officials parrot their stance that vouchers are a bad idea. Al Gore has vowed never to support vouchers. His running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), flip-flopped on the issue when he was named to the Gore ticket. The senator, who sponsored some of the most revolutionary voucher bills in conjunction with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), reassured NEA delegates to the party's convention that their jobs are safe with him. It's a shame, really. The presidential ticket that says it's "not for the powerful" but "for the people," turns its back on the idea that will help the people the most. The Democrats need to follow the Republican lead on this one and take a hard look at what's more important for this country's future. Is it the selfish motives of a big union or the needs of our inner city kids? Is it continuing welfare for uncaring teachers or equipping our kids for life in a competitive world? It's time to give inner-city kids a chance, to fix our dying schools and to break the cycle of poverty. It's time to finally drop the curtain on this tired tragicomedy and begin writing a new act.

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