Federal Project

Will Bush's education plan make a difference?


Democrats assailed President Bush for the few cuts his proposed budget offered, but they are not even satisfied when he tries to increase spending. The $1.4 billion by which he wants to boost education spending is just not enough, according to Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) and Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). They want $13 billion more.

The rest of the liberal establishment, knowing that Bush wants an education bill to call his own, is piling on. "President Bush has always talked a lot of common sense on education," writes Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. "But the chance for a great bipartisan agreement will elude him if he isn't willing to put money where his mouth is."

Bush's two big education ideas, you may recall, are some form of vouchers for kids in demonstrably awful schools and nationwide testing (with the federalist twist that states should devise and administer their own tests).

In dilating on the chance for a "great bipartisan agreement" on education, Dionne was referring specifically to a bill that has emerged from Sen. James M. Jefford's (R-Vt.) education committee. Unless your definition of "great" means "spending cash by the truckload on demonstrably failed and/or stupid programs," the Senate bill is not so swell. The 796-page behemoth jettisons vouchers and throws out a provision that will allow states to opt out of all federal regulation. It also addresses pressing pedagogical concerns by prohibiting smoking in schools and dishing out $50 million for programs to help parents, schools, and children build better relationships. What remains of Bush's original plan in the Senate is his cherished testing. By the 2005-06 academic year, all students attending third through eighth grades will take tests annually in both math and reading.

Both the Senate bill and Bush's education budget ignore a more basic issue: Who says that the answer to the problems in some public schools is more federal money? "I ask myself that question everyday," says a Senate Republican aide, who notes that the annual testing will document just how bad many schools are. "On balance, it helps build constituencies for choice that will change the dynamics of the education debate in the future." Maybe. It might also build up constituencies to demand yet more federal money–especially after this round of "reforms" fails to deliver anything close to fourth graders who can read and write.

In fact, the last thing education needs is more federal involvement. The Republicans were closer to the mark years ago, when they promised to abolish the Department of Education. It's an inefficient bureaucracy, one that manages to lose millions of dollars—that's right, lose—every year. In early April, the department's own inspector general was forced to tell Congress that over the last three years of the Clinton Administration, Education misplaced as much as $450 million.

Department officials, who in the past have been known to hook up their politically connected buddies with $450-a-day consulting contracts, found time to send out duplicate grant checks. More than 200 employees carried credit cards on which they could charge up to $10,000 a month. Twenty-one lucky bureaucrats could write checks for up to $10,000 without asking anyone—not that there was anyone to ask, since the department has not enjoyed the services of a chief financial officer in two years and has been without an assistant secretary for management for half a decade. This is the gang to which Sens. Kennedy and Daschle demand taxpayers send $13 billion more (that's about $130 per American household).

It gets worse, though: Even the money that isn't misplaced fails to deliver results. The department's flagship program—Title I—is a complete flop. Established by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, it has disbursed roughly $150 billion to assist low-income students considered to be at risk of failing school. Massive federal studies of Title I in 1984 and 1997 found no lasting effects. A 1999 study delivered more hopeful results, but it turned out to be based on cooked data (somehow, by accident no doubt, test scores of low-performing students didn't get tallied!). I know it's hardly surprising that federal programs don't have to succeed to survive—even thrive—but it's worth remembering that rarely does a government program deliver the product it advertises.

Bush's original plan attempted to bypass the Department of Education by bundling existing programs together, block-granting the money to states, and providing students in the worst schools with individual Title I accounts, sometimes called vouchers. It was a finely balanced piece of political art that included more money for Democrats, test-score accountability for middle-of-the-road education reformers, and a last-resort voucher option for market-minded folks. But the Senate sausage factory hasn't been kind to those ingredients.

The question now is how much federal government is too much for President Bush, who has invested much political capital in securing an education bill. At least one education analyst thinks his threshold for government spending is quite high. "The president led with more money and less choice—he'll get more than he asked for in both cases," says Cato Institute education analyst Darcy Olsen. "And in the end, he'll call that a fair compromise."