Your tax dollars on drugs

Debra J. Saunders

8/23/2002 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
If the Department of Education's list of America's best school drug-prevention programs were a game, it would be called: The judges can't lose. It turns out that five of the 15 panelists who picked the nine exemplary and 33 promising programs were involved with drug programs that the panelists found to be the best. Four programs were deemed exemplary, one promising. Some coincidence. School districts that look to this list for help choosing which anti-drug programs to adopt, however, won't see affiliations between panelist and program clearly posted in the glossy 8-by-11-inch brochure the Dept of Ed folk put out. Panelist Gilbert Botvin, for example, is listed for his affiliation with Cornell University Medical College -- not with the exemplary "clearly articulated and logically appropriate" Life Skills Training program he developed. Botvin's on vacation. The Dept of Ed folks couldn't offer a good response by deadline. Phyllis Ellickson of Rand and its "exemplary" Project Alert denied the relationship was incestuous. "You should realize before any programs came to the panel for review," she said, "they had been reviewed by a larger group of experts in the field." Ellickson recused herself from evaluating Rand's program. On the outside looking in, however, Lynn Lafferty of the InDepth program -- which didn't make the list -- sees a skewed process. When she was a San Francisco pharmacist, Lafferty began developing an innovative anti-drug program that uses economics and risk-analysis to teach kids lessons about the pros and cons of drug use and drug dealing. Lafferty operates on the assumption that kids -- especially poor kids -- are open to analysis that looks at the dollars-and-cents downside to the drug world. She's been in jails and interviewed dealers to see how many actually saved money. (Answer: precious few.) She appeals to kids' rational instincts. Lafferty didn't see rational in her Dept of Ed evaluations. One evaluator faulted Lafferty for using an "investment" metaphor with poor kids. "The reviews were so disparate," noted Barbara Dietsch of the education research group WestEd. Looking at the winners and losers, Lafferty saw a process that works like this: "First you get millions of dollars to develop a product" -- although it should be noted some favored programs were developed without tax money. "Then you get millions of dollars to research it. Then you write about it in journals to say how good it is. Then the U.S. Department of Education puts you on a committee so you can select yourself and make sure no one else gets on that list." Franklin Zimring, a professor at U.C.-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, was a panelist not involved with a drug program. From his East Bay home Wednesday, Zimring said that he knew there was a link between one panelist and an "exemplary" program -- but not five. He also noted that he didn't feel any pressure to favor any of the well-connected five programs, but he wouldn't say there was no "halo effect" for programs favored by the chosen circle. That said, Zimring wasn't exactly dazzled by the Dept of Ed's modus operandi. The selection process, he noted, was "staff-dominated" and hobbled by bad criteria. He would have used different criteria to select the programs. And he took issue with six touchy-feely criteria featuring this sort of language -- "content and processes are aligned with (program) goals," "program promotes multiple approaches to learning." "If you were to ask me with a lie detector to describe some of the sub-criteria, as far as my understanding, I would not do well on the test," said Zimring. These criteria could explain why Lafferty's ratings varied so. And when a cadre on the inside can pick language that allows insiders to self-select -- and favor other programs with similar viewpoints -- you see how a world once dominated by the results-poor DARE anti-drug program may be setting itself up for Son of DARE. Does Zimring now think the panel should have more independent members? "Good heavens, yes. Nobody likes a Little League where the parents are the managers and umpires."