Snakehead for breakfast

“One can’t believe impossible things,” said Alice.

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Obviously, the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass had never been to Washington, because in the nation’s capital nothing is impossible.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a series of events that, when considered in combination, seem to intertwine and loop back upon themselves. This strange aggregation of developments involves all three branches of the federal government.

In the news pages, you should take each for what it’s worth, as an isolated development. But here, I invite you to consider the strange interplay of the recent goings-on. See if you detect any obscure pattern, any opaque objective swimming eerily below the surface—like one of those evil, oily northern snakehead creatures now known to inhabit the neighboring waters of Washington, D.C.

First, there’s this: The U.S. Department of Education announced that nearly 9,000 schools are failing under the provisions of a weak precursor to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This is just a preview, because when the NCLB hits with full force, the initial failure rate seems certain to soar.

Now, almost simultaneous to the news of massive school failures, Education Secretary Rod Paige was calling leaders of education and industry together at a Washington conference. His message: Online learning and technology-based instruction are key to supplementing regular education and improving student achievement.

Just blocks away (and you need to stay focused now), the former CEO of the world’s second largest telecommunications company (teleco) was cowering behind the 5th Amendment, hoping that yapping lawmakers wouldn’t gum him to death for alleged accounting failures amounting to some $4 billion.

That’s where Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), comes in. Acting as a sort of adjunct FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), which doles out assistance to disaster victims, Powell and a majority of his fellow commissioners announced a plan to rush emergency aid to the likes of WorldCom.

Powell and his fellows have their eyes on nearly $1 billion collected, but not used, to upgrade school technology. The Powell alternative: Instead of putting unused eRate funding to work helping schools develop the “online learning and technology-based instruction” Secretary Paige holds dear, Chairman Powell at the other end of town wants to give that eRate money to the telecos, so they can even out the surcharges the companies levy against consumers to fund the eRate.

Powell and his colleagues have cooked up a savory argument in favor of this give-away. That’s not surprising. But here’s what did seem remarkable—to me, at least: The Washington education establishment appeared perfectly content to swallow Powell’s argument without so much as a burp of protest.

Perhaps the school lobby was distracted by one other big development of recent days. You might have heard about it. In Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court, with its president-appointing 5-4 majority, ruled in favor of vouchers. Bush-backers and other voucher proponents hailed the ruling as a latter day Brown vs. Board of Education.

Thanks to this new Supreme Court ruling, politicians now are free to take tax revenues raised for public education and hand the money over to faith-based schools and corporate education ventures—provided, of course, the available local public school is deemed a failure.

So let’s review . . . Public schools, according to ED, need technology to improve achievement. Nearly $1 billion set aside to help them acquire such technology is being given to telecos, instead of to schools. New achievement standards of the NCLB are likely to result in a massive number of public schools being categorized as failures. A slender Supreme Court majority slashes the constitutional constraints on vouchers. When public schools are categorized as failing, their students can legally redirect taxes raised for public education to churches and corporations that operate competing schools.

Is there a pattern here? Is somebody on a mission? Impossible to imagine, you say? Then, my dear, you haven’t had much practice.

Of course, intentions are tricky to confirm, and patterns sometimes appear only in the eye of the beholder.

Yet at a time when the whole of Washington still trembles at revelations about a pitch-black, razor-toothed fish that sports a primitive lung and can prowl dry land, even Alice might agree: Nothing seems entirely out of the question in the nation’s capital anymore.

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