High on Cents, Lacking Sense

Posted: Jul 30, 2004 12:00 AM

There?s a reason so many people buy lottery tickets despite the astronomical odds against winning: They believe that if they just had more money, their problems would vanish. But it seldom works out.

Take the way we?ve treated education policy. Since 1965, federal spending on education has quadrupled, from $25 billion then to an inflation-adjusted $108 billion in 2002. States have clearly won the spending lottery. But what about the students? By most measures, student achievement has remained flat during the last three decades -- hardly a winning ticket.

At some point, you?d think we would slow down, catch our breath and attempt to find out why this approach is failing before we throw more money at the problem. No such luck.

Recently, presidential candidate John Kerry announced that, if he?s elected, he?d provide states with $20 billion over the next decade to hire more teachers and boost their pay. He?d pay for that, he says, by repealing some of the Bush tax cuts. This mirrors the Democratic platform, which claims that President Bush is underfunding the No Child Left Behind law, providing ?$27 billion less than he had promised, literally leaving millions of children behind.?

That makes a nice soundbite. But the truth is that the last thing states need right now is even more federal money. In fact, they already have more than they can spend.

The Education Department recently reported that all 50 states, the District of Columbia and eight territories are sitting on piles of federal cash -- some $2.7 billion. At least part of it was intended to help poor children, disabled students and limited-English learners. But it hasn?t been spent. And the federal government is warning that if it isn?t, at a minimum, earmarked for a specific project by Sept. 30, the states will have to return it.

This isn?t a new thing, either. Just last year, states returned $154 million in unspent federal education funds. That?s money that sat around, unspent, for three years. And not for lack of trying on the part of the states.

?We try to spend every penny that the federal government sends us,? Debbie Ratcliff, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, told the Associated Press. But even after her state?s best efforts, Texas still sent back $11 million last year.

That?s why it?s simply impossible to believe that the federal government is really underfunding education. If we were giving the states short shrift, there?s no way every single state would be returning unspent federal education money.

Before we decide to shovel untold billions more their way, let?s give No Child Left Behind a chance to work. After all, the law requires states to test students annually and report on their progress. The long-term goal is for every student to be fully proficient in reading and math within 12 years.

But it?s up to the states, not the federal government, to set the standards. And many states didn?t even get a plan in place until last year.

Meanwhile, states and school districts are busy setting up accountability programs, trying to find ways to ensure teacher quality and designing public school-choice programs. As Heritage Foundation education analyst Krista Kafer noted recently, it?s going to take a few years before we?ll really know if the law is working.

It?s probably unfair to judge a federal program on spending alone -- we also should consider whether or not it?s delivering ?bang for the buck.? But it is safe to say, when states are returning hundreds of millions of dollars, that education isn?t underfunded. And our children have little hope of winning the education lottery until we stop pretending that it is.