- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2000

President Clinton has signed the year 2000 federal aid to education bill, which allots more than $20 billion for public school students from kindergarten through high school. Supposedly, it's a further step toward "Goals 2000," which was to make American students No. 1 in math and science by the turn of the millennium.

Now that the milestone has been reached, it has become obvious that federal involvement in public school education is a failed, poorly planned, enterprise. The National Goals Panel has recently reported that none of the eight public school criteria for improvement has been met after more than a decade.

In the Third International Math and Science Study, American high school students scored 19th out of 21 nations overall in math, beating out only Cyprus and South Africa. Even our brightest, the advanced placement students, scored near the bottom in an international math contest. In reading, 38 percent of our 9-year-olds are not functioning at grade level.

Education is now the buzzword in national politics. Vice President Al Gore has suggested increasing federal aid to education by $116 billion. Everyone from President Clinton to candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties are vying for the title of "Education President," as if Washington held the key to better schools.

That's just not the case. The federal government pays only 7 percent of the $350 billion cost, and few of these funds are well spent.

Title I, the $8 billion annual program for poor, mainly minority students, has been an acknowledged failure. The intent may be good, but in its report titled "Prospects," the Education Department admits that Title I has not helped close the performance gap between minority and other students.

The federal IDEA program for supposedly learning disabled students is also flawed. This has ballooned so irrationally that 1 in 7 children nationally is diagnosed by school authorities as in need of special education. The federal government sets the rules but pays only $6 billion a year. Meanwhile, it costs school districts some $35 billion for this almost unfunded federal mandate.

President Clinton's plan to hire an additional 100,000 qualified teachers is mainly a mirage. Each teacher, whose average earnings is $40,000 a year according to the National Education Association (and more in the suburbs), costs the taxpayers $1.7 million with benefits over a 30-year career. Even if the present $1.3 billion annual federal allotment was continued for all those years, it would bring in only $39 billion of the needed $170 billion.

That would pay for only 22,500 teachers, not 100,000.

Who would pay the rest some $131 billion? Naturally the hard-pressed school districts.

Another problem with Washington's plan is that many of these new teachers are not truly "qualified." This was demonstrated in Massachusetts when 1,800 education college graduates took a relatively simple teacher licensing exam and 59 percent flunked. Pennsylvania's Education Secretary Eugene Hickok has shown the average teacher trainee in education colleges had completed high school with only a C+ average. In this era of public school grade inflation, this is hardly the academic background needed for teaching.

Naturally, our schoolchildren suffer the consequences. In exams given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (one federal program that does work), the majority of our high school seniors don't know the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation, had never heard of the Marshall Plan, the Great Society, the War of 1812, Tom Paine, or even Patrick Henry. Most couldn't find the Mediterranean Sea or Vietnam on a map.

The inadequacy of American schooling is also demonstrated in our typically weak high school curriculum. According to the Department of Education, only 1 in 5 of our graduates have studied trigonometry or physics, basic subjects in many nations. Half have never taken chemistry or intermediate algebra. To maintain our high-tech proficiency, we have to rely on foreign students, who make up the majority of the Ph.D.s in engineering and computer science awarded this year.

Washington is not the solution to our education dilemma. Education is primarily a state function. And with the failure of federal involvement, each state and community must find its own way to selecting and training better teachers. Simultaneously, they must improve the curriculum.

One route is for the states not Washington to imitate European nations by passing legislation to close all undergraduate schools of education, such as we did with medical education in 1910 after the Flexner report. Teacher training should be a one-year postgraduate course for graduates of regular four-year colleges who have at least a "B" average, which is similar to what we require for would-be doctors and lawyers.

Most important, parents and citizens must stop looking to Washington for solutions they have not, and cannot produce. Despite talk of reform, things will not get better until people realize that the future of public education lies with them and their state and local officials, and not in Washington with the impractical schemes of "Education Presidents."

Martin L. Cross is the author of "The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools" (Harper Collins).

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