- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2001

There are good things in President Bushs education bill, which is winding its way through Congress. But the bills focus on spending more money to cure what ails our schools is not one of them.
Contrary to the prevailing political myth that the United States has been shortchanging its schools, total education spending at the federal, state and local levels for both public and private schools has reached an estimated $389 billion a year. We have increased spending by more than 72 percent since 1980.
Spending over this period at the U.S. Department of Education alone for all grades (K-12) has almost doubled, rising from nearly $15 billion to more than $27.1 billion.
Congress approved nearly $19 billion just for programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act last year. The budget plan for 2002 calls for further increases for ESEA, 11.5 percent more, and that is what the House has provided.
The Senate has added more than $10 billion in amendments to its bill, which had already called for $28 billion in spending. At this rate, the authorization levels could balloon to more than $78 billion a year over the next six years.
But has all this spending paid off in higher academic achievement levels? If more money produced better schools, then test scores should be soaring. Instead, the data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that test scores over the past two decades for elementary- and secondary-school students hardly budged. The overwhelming evidence is that this approach has failed.
"At the federal level, spending on elementary and secondary education programs rose steadily during most of the 1980s (in real inflation-adjusted terms) and then skyrocketed during the 1990s under the Clinton administration," says a new study for the Heritage Foundation by Kirk A. Johnson and Krista Kafer.
State and local governments have sharply boosted school spending, too. "In fact, over the past three decades, total current per-pupil expenditures for elementary and secondary public school students nearly doubled nationwide in constant dollars from $3,367 in 1970 to $6,584 in 2000," the two analysts point out in their study.
Proponents of more spending say it is necessary to lower the teacher-student ratio by hiring more teachers and building more classrooms. Actually, the total number of students per teacher nationwide has dropped from 22 in 1970 to fewer than 17 in 1999, the Johnson-Kafer study found. Little wonder that educational scholars now question the claim that lower ratios produce better-performing students.
Another faddish educational cause in recent years has been computers. Schools desperately need more computers per student, we are told.
But the Johnson-Kafer study found that the number of computers in public elementary and secondary schools has increased dramatically. The ratio of more than 63 students for every computer in 1985 fell to less than five per computer last year.
What all this evidence suggests, they say, is "that there is little reason to expect that increasing funding for these programs will make them produce better results."
The National Research Council similarly concluded in 1999 that additional funding for education "will not automatically and necessarily generate student achievement and in the past has not, in fact, generally led to higher achievement."
The NRCs conclusion was reinforced when the U.S. Department of Education found last year that an astounding 68 percent of fourth-grade students could not read at a proficient level, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Math scores have remained similarly flat over the past few decades.
What these and many other independent studies show is that there is no relationship between spending more money and getting better results in our schools.
Instead of throwing more money at the problem, Congress needs to deregulate the governments programs, giving states and localities more freedom to spend the money we already give them on programs that have shown the best results. Mr. Bushs plan, and parts of the pending legislation, would provide more waivers from federal funding rules but not nearly enough.
In the meantime, the price tag on the pending education bill continues to grow. And one of the bills best features, a school-choice provision intended to help inner-city parents with children in failing schools transfer them to better private or public schools, has been killed in the Senate.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was one of the Democrats who voted to kill even a limited school-choice pilot program, saying there was "no evidence" that the freedom and competition that comes with school-choice vouchers has improved any school.
But when Manhattan Institute education analyst Jay P. Greene studied Floridas "A-Plus" school-choice program, he found that "failing schools that face the prospect of vouchers made improvements that were nearly twice as large as the gains displayed by other schools in the state."
It is worth noting that when the Clintons came to the White House in 1992, and had to choose a secondary school for their daughter, Chelsea, Mrs. Clinton chose a private school.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times and a nationally syndicated columnist.


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