August 31, 2001

August 31, 2001 | Commentary on Education

Still Leaving Children Behind

If you want a textbook example of how federal lawmakers can take a good legislative proposal and turn it into fool's gold, consider what happened to the president's education bill.            

Begin by noting an almost universally recognized fact: Federal education policy is a mess. Over the last three decades, Washington has spent more than $120 billion in an effort to close the achievement gap between poor students and their wealthier peers. The result? The gap is as wide as ever.

Worse, overall achievement has declined. A national test administered by the U.S. Department of Education shows that three out of every five low-income 4th graders can't read at a basic level.            

If we could spend our way out of this crisis, we'd have done it by now. Combined federal, state, local and private spending for education reached an estimated $389 billion during the 1999-2000 academic year. Yet American students trail many foreign students badly in math and science. And the longer our kids remain in school, the further they fall behind their Korean, Japanese and Russian peers.

Recognizing this, President Bush called for four basic improvements. He wanted to consolidate overlapping programs, give local administrators the flexibility to make the changes they think best for their students, introduce real accountability, and give students in failing or dangerous schools the opportunity to go elsewhere.

Seems reasonable. But Congress had other ideas.

Rather than target areas that deserve to be national priorities-such as helping poor children improve their reading skills-both houses of Congress added new programs modeled after old programs that haven't worked. The House, at least, managed to cut the overall number of federal programs, from 61 to 47. But in the Senate, a behemoth of boondoggle emerged: The number of authorized programs soared to 89.

On flexibility, President Bush wanted to let state and local officials design their own programs. Under his plan, states would sign performance contracts with the U.S. Department of Education. They'd promise to boost student achievement-and test regularly to measure their success-in exchange for freedom to determine how federal dollars are spent. Red tape would be cut, and onerous paperwork requirements reduced.

But Congress took a different approach-one that can be charitably described as "more of the same." The House version, which is several hundred pages longer than the current law, is filled with new paperwork requirements. (The words "shall," "will" and "must" appear more than 1,500 times.) The Senate version is almost as bad. Both would allow some limited flexibility in certain school districts, but this hardly makes up for the number of added regulations.

On accountability, at least, things look better. Lawmakers seem willing to go along with the president's desire for increased testing. Haggling continues over the mechanics of testing, but the principle that students will be tested and that there will be consequences seems to have taken hold.

The consequences, though, don't go nearly as far as they should. It looks as if students stuck in failing schools still won't be able to use vouchers to attend a public or private school of their choice or even transfer to other public schools out of their district. They might be able to transfer to another local public school. Sounds great, unless you live in a district filled with lousy schools.

Well, some may reply, this legislation is better than nothing. I disagree. "Nothing" actually might be better, especially when you consider how the final product will be billed: as the helping hand our children need. If only.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation ( www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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