May 2, 2005

May 2, 2005 | Commentary on

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of May 2nd

Last year Congress created an innovative program to provide "opportunity scholarships" to enable 1,700 low-income children in the District of Columbia to escape the District's troubled school system. There were some inevitable hiccups at first: Critics alleged that the demand for the scholarships was weak and that not enough of the students applying for the scholarships came from low-performing schools.

Happily, things are looking up for the first federal school-choice program for elementary and secondary school students. The first of several lotteries to award the $7,500 scholarships attracted 506 applicants for only 271 slots, with two-thirds hailing from the most troubled schools in the public system.

Indeed, two recent reports from the National Center for Education Statistics tell a story that ought to prompt even the most hard-hearted liberals to reconsider the merits of school choice.

It turns out that the District spends an unfathomable $13,330 per pupil per year, making it one of the most expensive school systems in the continental United States. Yet the District school system still ranks dead last in reading and mathematics. Overall, 64% of District's 4th graders received a "below basic" rating in math; 69% were "below basic" in reading.

Little wonder that support for greater educational choice has exploded in our Nation's Capital.

My Heritage Foundation colleague Kirk Johnson recently pointed out that school-choice programs not only offer hope to students who are trapped in failing public schools, but make good fiscal sense as well. How so?

Johnson noted that the amount of the District scholarship--$7,500--is less than 60% of the annual per-pupil expenditure. "What," he asked, "if a similar scholarship program were available to just 10% of the public school students in the eight states that spend over $9,000 per pupil?" The annual savings in these states would total $2.6 billion.

The promise of delivering a high-quality education to at-risk kids, while saving taxpayer dollars, is an idea worthy of further examination.

Another Entitlement Expansion?

House conservatives were aghast recently when White House economic adviser Allan Hubbard told reporters the President "is willing to consider what people are calling add-on accounts" in order to lure Democrats to the negotiating table on Social Security reform.

An add-on account would be financed not from a portion of a worker's Social Security payroll taxes, but through more deficit spending, some form of additional taxes or forced savings from individual workers. In short, conservative Social Security experts regard add-on accounts as yet another expansion of the entitlement state.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) summed up the frustration of Hill conservatives nicely on Human Events Online. "It's a new tax-and-spend program," he said. "You pay a little more tax and we spend a little more. I don't like that idea."

Two leading House conservatives, Arizona's John Shadegg, who chairs the House Republican Policy Committee, and Indiana's Mike Pence, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, agreed. They decided it was imperative for House conservatives to stop this threat to principled Social Security reform and sent the President a terse letter, warning Bush that "the vast majority of conservative members oppose" add-ons. When Shadegg and Pence informed their colleagues of their effort, more than 50 asked for the opportunity to sign on to a similar letter, which was hand-delivered to Bush last Wednesday.

Gotcha Moments

More than a few Senate Democrats are bemoaning the power of modern technology. It seems that Democratic heavyweights ranging from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) to leading backbench liberals such as Ted Kennedy (Mass.), John Kerry (Mass.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) all have been caught in "gotcha" moments thanks to modern computer-search technology.

It turns out that Reid, who today repeatedly refers to Social Security as the "most successful program in the history of the world" and has steadfastly opposed the President's reform ideas, introduced legislation early in his congressional career that would have exempted all federal employees--including the President, members of Congress, cabinet officials and federal judges--from Social Security and allowed them to invest their payroll taxes in an alternative private retirement system.


Democrats in the forefront of the battle over the President's judicial nominees now unequivocally support the filibuster. Yet early in 1995, Senators Lieberman and Tom Harkin of Iowa brought a proposal to the Senate floor that would have eliminated all filibusters, not just in the case of judicial nominees, but for everything

Double oops. Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation. 
Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events