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D.C. city limits

"D.C. city limits" Continued...

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

I told them that the DiIulio emphasis on discretionary grant-making gave government officials too much power to pressure religious groups to change their ways. I predicted that this approach would alienate friends without placating opponents, and would grow the size of government instead of shrink it. Great: Less than two weeks after Bush's inauguration I was in opposition. There goes my White House pass. Goodbye, inner ring. Thanks, God's agitator.

In 2001, though, a different type of inner ring began in Austin. Several people in our church realized that Austin public schools did not meet the spiritual or academic needs of the two children who had lived with us. From out of those concerns came our idea for City School, a new K-8 academy that would serve children from both rich and poor areas and discern the distinct gifts and inclinations of each child.

Over several months we ran across 32 children who could benefit from our approach. Some came from racial or ethnic minorities. Some were way behind academically. A couple were way ahead and thus also didn't fit. Some were dyslexic: Sweet and often smart kids with dedicated parents, and every day in school had been an experience of failure for them.

I was learning firsthand the limitations of social science that looks at people as group members. The poor people and ex-convicts we had tried to help, the children who came to City School, the people I as an elder interviewed for church membership-they all had their individual stories. Educational assembly lines and other factory models did not work with human beings.

Compassionate conservatism at street level, I realized, is different from its appearance at suite level, where the talk is of grant-making and statistical assessments. Compassionate conservatism, rightly understood, is not rocket science and not even social science. It is not an oiled bowling alley. It is an English muffin with nooks and crannies. It's an embrace of individuality.

We embraced individuality in selecting teachers. They were uncertified but good-and parents felt a bit more at ease when a Harvard Law School graduate who was a homeschooling mom became the headmaster. She had given her children an afternoon break where they drank hot chocolate as she read them stories-and City School developed some of that feel.

We embraced individuality among students previously seen as dummies, and gave them an opportunity to showcase their strengths. One student built an amazing Rube Goldberg machine that worked. We found action books for boys who found they liked reading. We urged kids to write creatively even when they had every-other-word spelling errors. Hangdog kids learned to shake hands and make eye contact.

We had frustrations. I had seen historically how bad charity drives out good. Now in Austin I saw that, even though City School tuition was practically free for the poorest, some parents sent their kids to bad public schools because we could not match free breakfasts/free lunches/free transportation/other bells and whistles. I watched in Washington as "compassionate conservatism" by Sept. 11 had mutated into a big government program-and on that day the nation's attention shifted.

Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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