On the morning of Sept. 11, President Bush was taking part in a reading lesson at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Bush later reported his reaction upon hearing the news, saying, "I’m sitting in the midst of a classroom with little kids… and I realize I’m the Commander-in-Chief and America’s under attack."
Hurrying to Air Force One, the president told aides, "We’re at war. That’s what we’re paid for, boys."
What a frank reminder of the proper role of the federal government. Presidents aren’t elected to teach reading. Politicians inside the Beltway can do little to improve learning in schoolhouses thousands of miles away. Decisions about education are best left to parents, educators, and local communities. The Founding Fathers understood this: that’s why they never mentioned the word "education" in the Constitution.
Nevertheless, Congress has now reached an agreement on an education package for the nation. Six months ago, the passage of the president’s "number one priority" would have heralded a great triumph for the administration. Today it arrives with hardly a whisper. But was the education package ever worth celebrating?
The centerpiece of the bill is an accountability plan that requires states to test students annually to determine which schools are failing. But tests already show that too many children are failing. The recent National Association of Educational Progress exam found that one in three fourth-graders couldn’t read. Giving an illiterate child another test is about as useful as giving an obviously sick child a thermometer: It might confirm the problem, but it won’t do anything to fix it.
The bill also tries to "streamline" the bureaucracy at the Department of Education. Sounds good, but it would only consolidate 55 federal programs into 45, which is akin to streamlining an elephant by chopping off its tail.
All in all, this "reform" package will cost an additional $8 billion next year as the Department of Education’s K-12 budget climbs to $26.5 billion. If history is any guide, those extra dollars will feed the education bureaucracy and have no positive impact on students. Last year, the House Education and Workforce Committee reported that there are more than 760 education-related programs spread across 39 federal agencies costing taxpayers $120 billion per year. The bulk of that funding, of course, goes to the Department of Education, which reported losing track of $450 million during three consecutive GAO audits.
Even if these additional funds aren’t lost or stolen, will they solve the problems facing American education?
Taxpayers have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the Department of Education since its founding in 1980. During that time, test scores have remained flat and significant achievement gaps still exist. If more funding were the answer, surely we’d have seen results by now.
For a president who pledged to "leave no child behind," the education bill is, at best, a missed opportunity. The original legislation contained a modest voucher proposal, but the president stood silent while Congress tossed it aside. Now, the only residue of school choice is a federal stipend for after-school tutoring programs for students in bad schools. That is,quite literally, too little, too late.
Children deserve a decent education from the start, which means parents should be able to choose schools themselves, not just after-school tutors. The president should have proposed and fought for a real school-choice proposal.
One plan worth considering is a scholarship tax credit. By giving taxpayers a rebate for charitable contributions to fund educational scholarships, millions of students could attend better schools. For these kids, a chance at a good education in a new classroom might mean the difference between a life of knowledge and a life of illiteracy. For the nation’s governors, the scholarship program would mean smaller class sizes and fiscal savings as millions of students transfer out of public schools and off the state ledger.
The scholarship program would also be a catalyst for future reforms. By introducing a first breath of competition into the education system, the scholarship program would demonstrate the extent of American parents’ dissatisfaction with the public school monopoly. That might give lawmakers in reluctant statehouses the political courage to pursue serious market-based reforms.
During the 2000 campaign, President Bush often quipped that he wasn’t campaigning to become the federal superintendent of schools. He should follow through on that campaign promise. Instead of proposing more top-down solutions to America’s education crisis, he should encourage state-level reforms that return education control to parents.
Dan Lips is an education researcher at the Cato Institute.