Fall marks a time when kids return to school and politicians, eyeing the final stretch of another campaign, spend a lot of time talking about kids - especially about their education. On this issue, for the first time in a long time, Congress can talk with pride.
Take the issue of school choice. In 1992, Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, was laughed at when he introduced a bill that would provide parents vouchers enabling them to send their children to any school-public, private or religious. The legislation didn't even get 100 votes. But when a similar "school choice" measure was introduced this Congress, it passed 214-208. The measure would have enabled low-income families in the District of Columbia to free their children from academically inferior-and frequently dangerous-public schools. I say "would have" because President Clinton vetoed it.
The cost of the plan was relatively small and it was targeted to the poorest of the poor. Called the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1998, the measure would have given scholarships worth as much as $3,200 to the families of 1,800 poor children. Now, $3,200 may not sound like a lot of money, especially compared to the $9,500 the D.C. public schools spend per pupil, but it's enough to cover full tuition at parochial schools like St. Peter's on Capitol Hill ($2,880) and St. Francis Xavier on Pennsylvania Avenue ($1,800). Imagine: For the amount of money it takes the D.C. public schools to miseducate one student, Xavier could provide a sound education to more than five.
Just what kind of schools did the president's veto condemn D.C. children to? In 1994, 72 percent of Washington's fourth-graders tested below "basic proficiency" on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test given to students in different grades every two years. Since 1991, reading skills in Washington have shown a net decline as measured by the standardized Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Again in 1994, more than half the high school graduates in the nation's capital who took the U.S. Armed Forces Qualification Test flunked. And forget college-more than 40 percent of D.C. students drop out before finishing high school.
The problem isn't limited to Washington, of course. A 1995 international test showed that in physics American 12th-graders ranked behind their counterparts in 11 other countries -including intellectual superpowers like Slovenia, Latvia and Cyprus. On the same test, American fourth-graders ranked eighth in math. In fact, only 36 percent of the U.S. 12th-graders even read "proficiently."
That helps explain why school choice, once considered the pipe dream of rich white Republicans, has gained widespread support. The Texas League of United Latin American Citizens, a business and civic organization, supports it. A poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappa, a professional education association, shows 62 percent of African-Americans support it. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., support it.
Former Rep. Floyd Flake, a New York Democrat never confused for a conservative, explains his support for school choice: "This is not a question for me about Democrats or Republicans. It is really a question about whether or not we are going to continue to let every child die, arguing that if we begin to do vouchers, if we do charter schools, what we are in fact doing is taking away from the public system. … It is like saying there has been a plane crash. But because we cannot save every child, we are not going to save any of our children."
Just as important as the growing support for school choice is the growing recognition that the best way for the federal government to help education is to step out of the way.
When Congress returns from its summer recess, lawmakers could do just that when they consider the Dollars to the Classroom Act, which would send a large chunk of federal education money-$3.4 billion-back to the states as block grants, which would be used for 35 existing education programs.
The aim of the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., and Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., is to make sure federal education dollars do what they're supposed to do-educate children. Under the terms of the block grants, the states would have to spend 95 cents of every dollar teaching kids. That's a far cry from what happens now: In New York City, for example, only 43 cents of every public education dollar makes it to the classroom.
There's still much lawmakers need to do to bring American education, especially in our inner cities, up to minimally acceptable levels. But just as a college student needs to pass one subject at a time to get a degree, Congress is heading in the right direction.
J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation,
a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire