June 13, 2001

June 13, 2001 | News Releases on Education

Education "Bidding War" Shortchanges Students, Analysts Say

WASHINGTON, June 13, 2001-A "bidding war" has erupted in Congress to see who can spend the most money on education, but the contest only diverts attention from true reform, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

"Pouring more funds into old, failed programs that don't truly serve children-particularly the poor-doesn't demonstrate a commitment to education," say education analysts Krista Kafer and Kirk Johnson. "It merely shows a commitment to the status quo."

The sums involved are staggering. Federal, state and local spending for education hit almost $390 billion last year. In inflation-adjusted dollars, America spends 72 percent more on education today than in 1980. And this year, Congress has responded to President Bush's request for more spending by upping the ante even further. The House of Representatives is calling for $23 billion. The Senate wants $38 billion (with some amendments still under consideration), with additional increases slated to total $78 billion annually within six years.

Yet no one seriously can argue ever-increasing outlays for education have made things better, Kafer and Johnson say. Last year, 68 percent of fourth graders couldn't read at a proficient level, and nearly half the students in urban schools are reading below a "basic" level. The achievement gap between white and black 13-year-olds in reading has widened from 18 points in 1988 to 29 points in 1999.

And Title I programs-those designed to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students-have failed to make a serious dent in the problem, despite $120 million in federal spending since 1965 ($80 million in the last decade alone).

"Instead of using a scattershot approach and funding every program in the hope that something will work, Congress should adopt a results-oriented approach," the analysts say. "Congress should require testing and hold schools truly accountable for the results. States and school districts should be given more flexibility in how they spend federal dollars to meet high standards. And children in schools that fail should have the chance to move to schools-public or private-that can meet their needs. There can be no accountability without options."

Members of Congress should go back to President Bush's No Child Left Behind plan and find ways to include his calls for flexibility and accountability, Kafer and Johnson say. For instance, the president called for creation of charter states and charter districts, in which the states or districts would enter into five-year performance agreements with the U.S. Department of Education. They could establish specific, rigorous goals for achievement and, in return, receive wide latitude in how they spend their federal education dollars. Those that fail would risk losing their charters and their funding.

"These measures would put the focus where it belongs-on accountability," they say. It also would enable school districts to save money by eliminating the huge amounts of red tape that have accumulated over the past three decades. Each federal education program has its own rules and paperwork, which saddles states with more than 20,000 pages of application forms to be filed each year.

A provision to eliminate red tape and give states and school districts more flexibility in how they spend federal education dollars passed the House in 1999 but never became law. This year, it has been stripped from the House legislation, and only a weakened version remains in the Senate version.

"American taxpayers have made a substantial investment in public education, and they have precious little to show for it," Kafer and Johnson say. "Continuing to increase spending on the same programs will not raise test scores. It's time for a new approach."

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