It"s funny how sometimes, when a person"s in a really bad spot, they"ll smile. In fact, with some people, the bigger the trouble, the bigger the grin. Someone once noticed this about Jimmy Carter during the darker days of his presidency. The more he smiled, they said, the worse things were. I thought of this as I watched a couple of hundred parents march into the Rotunda at the Statehouse not long ago to demand that Indiana"s public education budget not be cut. Most of these folks had gotten on buses up in Northwest Indiana at 5 o"clock in the morning. They"d ridden three hours to Indianapolis and been briefed on how legislators might try to cut more money from schools that have already taken a $30 million hit. The state"s in a budget crisis and politicians have threatened to further dismember Indiana"s already skeletal public school system. As those parents took their seats beneath the Capitol dome, many were smiling. It couldn"t have been because they were glad to be here. Indiana"s public schools are in serious trouble. We"ve heard this before, of course. Many of our schools, especially those in cities like Indianapolis, have been under-funded and under-performing for years. The situation"s been so bad for so long a lot of people are sick of hearing about it. Some say that given the state"s budget woes - the cuts to extracurricular programs, special education, teacher layoffs and expanding class sizes - they can"t imagine how the situation could go downhill from here. But it"s about to. The latest bad news for Indiana public schools is coming from Washington, D.C. There has been a running battle in American education between those who believe that schools are local institutions reflecting homegrown values and a more federalist camp who believe it"s a national responsibility to make sure all American children receive equal educational opportunity - regardless of who they are or where they live. Historically, advocates of local control have tended to be conservatives. Federal educational programs are practically synonymous with liberalism. Until now. The Bush Administration is imposing the most sweeping federal intervention in American public education in over a generation. Known as the Leave No Child Behind Act, this reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act presents itself as a kind of shock therapy for our schools. The Bush program revolves around a regime of high-stakes testing. To qualify for federal education funding, states are required by 2006 to test all students, grades three through eight, every year, in reading and math. High school students must be tested once. The tests are used to determine a school"s yearly progress toward student proficiency. This is where the high stakes come in. Schools that fail to hit the proscribed testing targets will face severe penalties that could lead to closings. The problem is that the Bush Administration"s definition of proficiency and proficiency as it has been defined in states like Indiana don"t add up. This means that while Indiana schools have been showing progress in ISTEP testing scores since 1999, this may not be enough to save them. Based on 2001 ISTEP test data, 269 of 291 Indiana school corporations would have been judged as failing federal proficiency standards. Only 22 corporations would have been given passing marks. The average enrollment of those 22 school corporations, it"s worth noting, is just 770 students. Indiana, thanks to its budget crisis, is looking at consolidating schools, increasing enrollments and class sizes. What"s more, those 22 corporations have an average minority enrollment of 1.55 percent. This is especially bad news for city schools. There are 34 school corporations in the Indiana Urban Schools Association, accounting for 93.8 percent of black students and 68.2 percent of Hispanic students tested statewide. Not one of these corporations would meet the proficiency standards set by the Leave No Child Behind Act. Draconian as it seems, all this might be worth it if there was solid evidence that taking tests actually serves to educate kids. But years of research shows that an educated person is different from a person who"s learned how to take tests. Not surprisingly, the recent rage to test comes to us from state governors and leaders of the business community whose concepts of accountability seem driven more by a narrow definition of self-interest - making workers and juggling numbers - than concern for a well-educated citizenry. What really seems afoot here is a conservative strategy to subvert our broad-based system of public education. High-stakes testing seems designed to drive as many schools out of business as possible and, through vouchers, steering a certain percentage of families toward charter and private schools. Indeed, when he was governor of Texas, George Bush recommended that student testing be linked to vouchers, arguing that poorly performing schools should have their funding converted into vouchers for parents. Born of understandable frustration with school performance, this desire to dismantle our public education system threatens to codify class distinctions that are pulling American society apart. While supposed grown-ups are free to argue over whether such distinctions are an incentive to achievement or the way for a few to consolidate and keep a hold on power, the futures of children are evaporating. No one is ever 12 years old twice. In cash-strapped Indiana, a state without a great tradition of public education to begin with, the situation is particularly dire. As they try to deal with our deficit, legislators like to say they also want to invest in the state"s future. If they don"t find a way to invest in public education, the state has no future. It"s simple as that. What"s happening to our public schools is what crisis looks like. Say, "Cheese."