By Dan Lips
The consensus on Capitol Hill is that American education is in crisis. Our colleges are graduating students who are ill-equipped to compete in the global economy, and our public schools leave millions of disadvantaged kids behind. So why is Congress sending precious education funds to a zoo in Akron and the Westchester Philharmonic in White Plains, New York?
This month the White House Office of Management and Budget unveiled a database of "earmarks," which are funding mandates that Members of Congress dole out for specific projects, typically ones benefiting constituents back home. The earmark database shows that the Department of Education's diet is heavy on pork. It received 1,199 earmarks totaling $483 million in fiscal year 2005.
The bulk of this money went to the Office of Innovation and Improvement ($289 million) and the Office of Post Secondary Education ($148 million). Digging further into the database reveals unsavory details of specific projects funded by these offices.
The Office of Innovation and Improvement's 709 earmarks went to entities like the Akron Zoological Park ($198,000) and the Alaska Sealife Center ($248,000) in Seward, Alaska, for its "Marine Ecosystems Education Program." The Westchester Philharmonic in White Plains received $99,000 for music education. Average per-student spending in White Plains topped $18,000 in 2004, more than double the national average.
One of the larger earmarks in 2005 was $15 million for the "Harkin Grant Program." This program, championed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), provides grants to the Iowa State Department of Education to "help school districts correct fire safety problems and to help school districts leverage local resources to construct new schools or remodel...existing buildings." No doubt other senators are envious that they couldn't deliver $15 million in vanity education earmarks for their constituents.
Defenders of earmarks argue that Members of Congress are uniquely positioned to ascertain local needs. And not all of the money spent on earmarks is wasted; some actually does go to programs that improve educational opportunities, such as more then $3 million for the KIPP Foundation in San Francisco, which has proven effective in serving disadvantaged kids.
Yet American taxpayers and families should question the earmark process, especially when it comes to education. After all, who is in a better position to determine the specific needs of local communities, Members of Congress or local elected officials, such as governors, state lawmakers, and mayors?
Think about how taxpayers and local policymakers could have better used the $483 million put into education earmarks. Those funds could have hired about 10,000 new public school teachers or provided opportunity scholarships to 100,000 disadvantaged kids. If that money had simply been returned to the local level, it could have paid for a wide variety of programs tailored to improving local education.
Pork barrel spending is a microcosm of the fundamental problem with the federal government's current role in education: The federal government is little more than an expensive and heavy-handed middleman. In 2007, American taxpayers will spend more than $66 billion on federal programs for elementary and secondary education. Most of this money will be transferred back to states and localities for specific programs, many of which have proven unsuccessful and make no sense for individual schools.
Two fixes to the earmark problem suggest themselves. First, the Bush Administration has the power to ignore education earmarks in conference reports that don't wind up in the text of the law itself. This would put an end to the haphazard and wasteful earmarking of federal funds outside of the traditional legislative process.
Second, Congress should fundamentally shift power from the Department of Education's programs toward greater state and local control. Rather than allowing Congress and the federal bureaucracy to spend billions of dollars each year, control over funds should be returned to the state and local level. This would deprive Congress of money to earmark.
Replacing federal earmarking with transparency and citizen ownership of education would give governors, state legislators, state school chiefs, state school boards, local leaders, and parents and taxpayers a greater say over how education funds are used. That could mean less federal money for zoos in Akron or music programs in White Plains, but it would be good news for students across the country.