Education: Its Not the Money

Posted: May 02, 2001 12:00 AM
I think it’s time for President Bush to reframe his education package. He should make school choice the centerpiece, rather than the perceived throwaway item of his plan. So far, the Democrats have been controlling the education debate by making this a contest as to which party is willing to spend the most money. Last week Bush emphasized that his education plan wasn’t about just throwing money at the problem, but he hastened to boast that his proposal involved greater federal spending than ever before on education. I wish Bush would quit trying to demonstrate his commitment to education by pointing to his willingness to spend federal tax dollars. Surely he knows you can never win a spending contest against Democrats. Indeed, the Democrats, while brazenly masquerading as fiscal conservatives, dismiss as paltry Bush’s proposed 11 percent increase in education funding. Their proposal calls for an increase of $250 billion over the next 10 years, more than 10 times Bush’s proposal. There’s a better way for Bush to prove his earnestness about improving the quality of education. He should talk about what works and what doesn’t work. Money, especially federal money, by itself, doesn’t work. Democratic politicians who constantly equate dollars with compassion ought to explain to taxpayers how increasing bureaucratic autonomy translates to greater compassion. Earlier this month the American Legislative Exchange Council released its Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis. While expenditures per pupil have increased by 22.8 percent in constant dollars nationwide over the past 20 years, standardized test scores have remained stagnant. Another recent study, by the Heartland Institute, has exposed the mismanagement, corruption and waste in the Education Department. It reveals that the Department is short on auditable financial statements, is suspected of wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and has failed to hold many states accountable for meeting federal Title I funding requirements. In one case, according to Heartland, the Department almost issued an $800 million loan to one student, and another $500 million in undisbursed grants is unaccounted for. Plus, there is a $6 billion discrepancy between U.S. Treasury records and those of the Education Department concerning education expenditures. Beyond issues of waste and corruption, the present system is not producing results. There is simply no excuse for the scandalous rates of illiteracy among our schoolchildren, e.g., nearly 70 percent of fourth-graders in poverty areas are unable to read at a basic level. The Democrats’ insistence on protecting the public education monopoly is more than indefensible; it’s morally wrong. With all their professed zeal for campaign finance reform and their dogmatic contention that money in politics is necessarily corrupting, you would think they would voluntarily disgorge themselves of their teachers’ union dollars. Bush should point out their hypocrisy and get back to talking about the superior features of his plan -- local control, accountability and school choice -- not as a last resort, but as a primary component of his plan. School choice is a proven winner, so there is no downside to Bush placing it at the forefront of his education agenda. There is an answer for every false charge leveled against educational choice. The Friedman Institute on Educational Choice, debunking the many myths, concludes that school choice: -- does not drain money from public schools or otherwise harm them, but actually improves them. In Florida, where a voucher program was recently instituted, failing schools have begun hiring more teachers and have increased funding for tutoring and lowering class sizes. Similar positive changes occurred in Milwaukee and Albany, N.Y., where school choice is being tried. -- serves the students who need it the most (academically). -- leads to more integrated schools. -- improves the quality of teaching. Democrats are forever bragging that the American people are with them "on the issues." Oh? What about polls showing that 52 percent of parents, 59 percent of public school parents, and 60 percent of minorities support school choice? Given the manifest corruption and waste in the existing federal education bureaucracy and the overwhelming public support for school choice, there is no justification for President Bush or congressional Republicans to play on the Democrats’ turf on this issue. Let Daschle and Gephardt keep preaching about money. Bush and the GOP should be talking about competition and how it will improve the quality of education like it does nearly everything else. Why not try "the American way" with education?