Improving education for poor children should be a paramount concern as Congress finalizes its work on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in conference committee. Poor children continue to lag behind their peers from higher-income households on standardized tests in every academic subject. Although the original ESEA of 1965 emphasized "the special needs of children of low-income families," its scope has expanded to include an array of programs that do little to help students who are economically or educationally disadvantaged.
Over the past three decades, the ESEA has grown from 34 pages to over 600 (current legislation exceeds 1,000 pages), and from six programs to over 60. This system of narrowly tailored and uncoordinated "categorical" programs has been notably unsuccessful in helping the most vulnerable students--those from low-income families--attain educational parity with their middle-class peers.
In an effort to target critical national education needs, President Bush presented an education reform plan, No Child Left Behind, that would have consolidated the 61 ESEA programs in several key categories, allowing the states to "have maximum flexibility to determine their priorities" within these divisions.1 (See Table 1.)
This reform plan should serve as a guide for the decisions of the conference committee. Both the House and Senate bills disburse funds across a wide field of programs--many of questionable effectiveness and relevance. According to the Congressional Research Service, the House version, the No Child Left Behind Act (H.R. 1), contains 47 ESEA programs and five non-ESEA programs. The Senate version, the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (S. 1), authorizes 89 ESEA programs and 12 non-ESEA programs for a total of 101 programs.2 In an August 13, 2001, letter to conferees, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige noted that the Senate bill authorizes more than 70 programs unsought in No Child Left Behind while the House version exceeds the Administration's focused approach by 20 programs.3
As Chart 1 shows, roughly half of the federal education programs in the current legislation are not included in the President's education budget. Secretary Paige advised conferees to "eliminate unrequested program authorities and enhance local flexibility." This would allow states and school districts to target funds designated by general categories to programs that best meet their students' needs.
Respondents generally concluded that the Bush Administration's proposal for program consolidation, if applied to the smaller programs, could strengthen education in low-income communities because it would decrease the current fragmentation of education programs. It also would permit those closest to the situation to set priorities for the use of funds.4
Urging Members to consolidate funding in general categories so that local authorities could target them most effectively, Representative John Boehner (R-OH), chairman of both the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the House-Senate conference, asked, "Will we use funding increases to create programs that, while well-intentioned, may not help students who need help the most?"5
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, disadvantaged 4th graders' average scores were 31 points lower than those of their more affluent peers on the reading assessment and 26 points lower in math.6 Over half of disadvantaged 4th graders scored below the basic level in both subjects. Many of these students will never gain the knowledge and skills needed to go to college or find a good job.
The need to target resources to critical education priorities could not be more clear. There is still time for members of the conference committee to achieve this goal. Consolidation will ensure that pressing issues such as the achievement gap between poor children and their middle-class peers receive the highest priority. By providing greater flexibility and decision-making at the local level, it will empower those who best know their students' needs to determine for themselves how the money will be used.
Krista Kafer is Senior Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation.
4. Iris C. Rotberg, Kenneth J. Bernstein, Suzanne B. Rotter, "No Child Left Behind: Views About the Potential Impact of the Bush Administration's Education Proposals," George Washington University Institute for Educational Policy Studies, July 2001, http://www.edpolicy.gwu.edu/resources.html.
6. For reading scores, see U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, The Nation's Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading 2000 , NCES 2001-499, April 6, 2001, at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp? pubis=2001499 ; for math scores, see U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, The Nation's Report Card: Mathematics 2000, NCES 2001-517, August 2, 2001, at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo,asp? pubid=2001517.