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Political games, profound policy 

George W. Bush so sank when the occasion demanded rising that he became to the presidency what the Razorbacks are to college football. Now, with Karl Rove back at work after a kidney stone problem, King George II rallies. The boy president’s shirt sleeves and open collar from a television stage in New Orleans, his newly expressed sensitivity to race-based poverty, his FDR-ish government agenda — these are wholly transparent political tactics, not without cynicism. Of course Democrats will bail him out by overplaying their criticisms, by behaving as vultures. Consider that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declared the other day, “What was Katrina? It was a failure of leadership.” Yes, New Orleans wasn’t humanely evacuated. Its levees had not been improved. The richest and most powerful nation on the earth couldn’t rescue its own people. But here’s a helpful guideline: Make sure your statements clearly distinguish between acts of God and the related failures of men. Blurring them renders you as asinine as the other guy is transparent. Katrina’s political game will rage on, ever unseemly and untoward. But now there’s something more important to command attention. It’s the public policy debate about how to rebuild an American city that had more than its share of classic American ills. Conservatives say the liberal solutions of the 1960s failed. Indeed, some of them did. Poverty still plagues our society, inordinately among blacks. Academic performance lags, especially among the poor. Blacks and whites remain largely separated by schools and neighborhoods, even after court-ordered integration and open housing laws. A vivid laboratory of all of that, New Orleans can become in its rebuilding a testing ground for new solutions. Or so say the conservatives. They are right. Here are three ideas, all of which matter more in substance than in the philosophical labels one might choose to apply, and which they may actually defy. 1. Charter schools all over the inner city, patterned after the successful KIPP schools sponsored in impoverished areas by corporate reformers like the Walton foundation. I cite the one in Arkansas, in Helena, where test scores have risen dramatically amid extended school days, weekend classes, summer sessions, uniforms, strict discipline and uncompromising ambition for poor black kids who talk about going to Ivy League colleges. Meanwhile, the regular public schools in Helena are so failed and mismanaged that the state has found it necessary to take them over. 2. Vouchers, not for schools, but housing. I refer to subsidized shelter for poor people that is spread throughout the city, not concentrated in poor areas to embed disadvantages and spare the middle and upper classes inconvenience. The most powerful news article coming out of New Orleans, in the New York Times, chronicled a white middle class family and a poor black family. The white middle class family got out of the city thanks to an American Express card, connections with a hotel chain that netted a discount rate and friends who provided an inside shot at scarce housing in northern Louisiana. The black family had no credit card and no network. It had $2,000 in savings, but in cash, not the bank. The money literally washed away. Clearly, poverty is not merely a matter of money. It’s isolation and helplessness. Using the occasion of a city’s rebuilding to separate poverty from itself, to distribute it into the community at large, would be a step toward relieving the isolation, then, maybe, the helplessness. 3. More strategic spending of our federal dollars, by which the Corps of Engineers could get all the money it needs to raise New Orleans’ levees but congressmen would get fewer dollars, preferably none, for their self-aggrandizing local projects. Arkansas could do without I-69 and White River irrigation, at least for a while, if other political subdivisions throughout the country also did without, and if the aggregate sacrifice bore the greater fruit of saving fellow citizens from washing away.
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