SCHWARZWALDER: To save children, cut education

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In front of the Department of Education edifice in Washington stands a replica of a little red schoolhouse. This reminder of our nation’s historic educational roots is quaint, bordering on anachronistic: Little red schoolhouses have as much to do with today’s education as covered wagons have to do with SUVs.

And the federal Department of Education has about as much to do with the successful education of today’s children as the McGuffy’s Readers of yesteryear have a place in a modern curriculum. The department is unconstitutional, ineffective and wasteful. In short, it should be abolished.

The department employs thousands of dedicated public servants who believe deeply in the well-being of America’s children, but they are swimming against the stream of common sense and quantifiable data: The federal education bureaucracy doesn’t work. Saving our children’s futures means saving them from the tender mercies of the Department of Education.

Nowhere in the Constitution is Congress given the explicit or implicit power to create or fund a department of education. The drafters of the Constitution never envisioned that their handiwork would be used to ensnare states and local governments in a vast web of federal funding and controls designed in Washington.

While that’s enough reason to abolish the department, the practical failings of centralized control over education only highlight the Founders’ wisdom.

The vaunted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program dramatically accelerated federal spending on education, but the federal Office of Management and Budget estimates that NCLB has added nearly 6.7 million hours to state and local authorities’ time in completing forms and filing paperwork. Also, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “High school graduates in the class of 2009 have experienced NCLB’s test-driven approach to ‘school reform’ since they were in fifth grade. Yet, they are not better prepared for college or the workforce, based on ACT or SAT scores.”

In fact, according to a 2007 White House report, the federal department’s “program for every problem” approach has led to “hundreds of education programs spread across 39 federal agencies at a cost of $120 billion a year.”

The problem is compounded by the tremendous waste inherent in Education’s budget. Last year, did we really need to spend $8.7 million on the Historic Whaling and Trade Partners Program or $5.8 million on the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate, “for the planning and design of a building and (potential) support for an endowment?” How about teaching Tommy to read?

The federal student aid program is also a serious failure. As noted by former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, “Federal student aid is crying out for reform. The system is redundant, it’s Byzantine, and it’s broken. In fact, it’s often more difficult for students to get aid than it is for bad actors to game the system.”

But instead of reform, the Obama administration is pursuing the same policy as its predecessors: Spend more money on programs that bring, at best, only modest benefits to their intended constituents, America’s children. And although the president has called for teacher accountability and even merit pay, some of his most important constituents - the leaders of the nation’s teachers unions - have pushed back, hard. Politically, these calls are, among Democrats, non-starters.

Strangely, as spending has gone up, test scores have dropped. Although we spend about $9,200 annually per public school student, a nearly 70 percent increase over the past three decades, roughly 1 million students drop out every year. This despite the fact that the Department of Education is being delegated roughly $48 billion in this year’s federal budget and was targeted for no less than $81 billion under Mr. Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Yet, despite massive increases in spending, virtually nothing has been accomplished in improving the quality of American education in kindergarten through 12th grade. For example, in 1980, about 2.75 million high schoolers graduated. In 2005, the number was about 2.8 million even though population in the intervening 25 years had risen from 226 million to more than 300 million.

What to do? First, eliminate the myriad duplicative programs. As of June, there were 69 federal programs designed to provide early childhood “assistance and care.” How does this possibly make sense? Granting that such programs are a good idea (for the sake of argument), consolidation would free up funds from bureaucratic overhead that could be spent on actually helping children. Or, better yet, allow states - or even parents - to keep their own money and spend it as they think wisest.

Second, stand up to the unions that put sinecures for “educators” ahead of the needs of children. When in 2002 a philanthropist offered $200 million to establish charter schools in Detroit, teachers staged a walkout in opposition to the proposal - which, shortly thereafter, was withdrawn. Competition - induced by charter schools, magnet schools, tax credits or voucher programs to enable parents to decide where to educate their children, etc. - would create true, market-based incentives for education reform.

Third, cut waste and reform the disastrous, debt-incurring student loan programs. Last year, the Government Accountability Office estimated that waste and abuse in student loan programs cost taxpayers $1 billion annually. As noted by education scholars Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven, “Under the Federal Family Education Loan Program, dozens of loan originators figured out how to earn a 9.5 percent guaranteed return from the government, even though market interest rates have been much lower.” This is just one of the student loan programs crying out for reform.

Fourth, pass the innovative A-Plus Act, offered by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, which would return a lot of authority to parents and localities and remove it from the educational bureaucracy languishing at the foot of Capitol Hill. As explained by Mr. DeMint, “All states would have the option of establishing a five-year Performance Agreement with the Secretary of Education. If approved, states would be able to combine funds from a few - or all - of the federal education programs that are administered at the state level and would be freed from the requirements of each individual program, allowing states to use the federal funds on proven state initiatives that advance the education priorities of the state.”

Finally, consider teaching your children at home. Home-schoolers score 86 percent, on average, on three of the major pre-college evaluations - as compared to 50 percent for public schoolers. Teachers unions, in fighting the spread of home-schooling, have hotly argued that no one without an education degree can possibly teach children well, and they have attempted to add levels of regulation and roadblocks to parents. But perhaps it is the education-centered approach of home-schooling, sans bureaucracy, that aids in a clear outcome: smarter, better-prepared, healthier and happier children.

In 1995, the then-new Republican majority made a tepid sortie against the Department of Education. The mission failed, and many of the department’s erstwhile opponents have since become advocates of a federal entity they once purported to oppose. Moral courage fell by the wayside as the “outsiders” became preoccupied with re-election, larger objectives or sheer philosophical incoherence.

As a Republican press secretary on the Hill in those halcyon days, I watched the supposed Republican revolution deflate before my eyes. I’d prefer not to witness such a sight again.

There is nothing compassionate about sustaining something that undermines the very purpose for which it was created. And for professing conservatives to say, in essence, “We’re just like the Democrats, only not as much,” is hardly consistent with allegiance to constitutional governance or the interests of those they represent.

The half-measures I have outlined are just first steps. Putting a monster on a diet might make it a little less plodding, but it remains a beast. Should Republicans retake control of Congress in the fall - or whenever they next have real power on Capitol Hill and the White House - they should aim carefullyand slay the dragon once and for all. Parents, children and the future of the nation deserve no less.

Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president of the Family Research Council and served in the George W. Bush administration and as a congressional staff member.

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