- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2000

There is an important debate going on in the presidential contest on how to improve our schools. George W. Bush wants to raise expectations and standards and give parents more choice. Al Gore wants to begin federalizing teachers' salaries.

The biggest part of Mr. Gore's education plan is the spending of a whopping $412 billion over the next 10 years in the firm belief that a lot more money from the federal government is the answer to most of our education problems.

Mr. Gore wants to begin raising teachers' salaries by $5,000 a year, using a mixture of federal, state and local funds for teachers who agree to work in depressed inner-city school districts.

But this begs the question of whether still more money will solve the ills that plague our worst schools. If this were true, the problems would have been solved long ago.

The Education Department reports that a record $324.3 billion was spent on our schools at the elementary and secondary levels in the 1997-98 school year. That's an increase of nearly 88 percent over the past 10 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Yet during this big-spending period, student test scores which were mediocre to start with have declined or have stagnated in the nation's worst public schools. More money alone is obviously not the answer.

But what about Mr. Gore's idea that the feds should become involved for the first time in paying teachers' salaries? This has been the responsibility of local school boards, teachers unions and the states. With the government so deeply in debt, and with so many other fiscal responsibilities on its plate Social Security and Medicare are facing insolvency and trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities is this the time to be piling gigantic new financial burdens on the shoulders of federal taxpayers?

And if we go down this road, what do we do when other public employees begin demanding that the feds pick up their paychecks, too?

"My fear is teachers on the federal payroll. Why? That's a big, big leap," says Amy Wilkins, the principal partner of the Education Trust, an advocacy group that seeks to recruit better teachers for poor school districts.

"Then what about nurses? What about firefighters? What about policemen?" she asks.

Mr. Gore wants to spend $8 billion to recruit 1 million new teachers. To be sure, teacher shortages have become a serious problem, and are expected to get worse as the Baby Boomers begin to retire. But should the feds be involved in an area of personnel recruitment that has always been a local and state responsibility? And whom is he really seeking to help?

What is really going on here is a quid pro quo with the teachers unions. The American Federation of Teachers has shelled out $433,000 in soft money contributions in this election cycle, most of it to Democrats, and much of it to Mr. Gore. The National Education Association teachers unions contributed nearly $270,000 over the same cycle.

Mr. Gore already has an-nounced a preliminary $1.2 billion government plan to begin hiring and paying 100,000 new teachers, and he has told the teachers unions he is ready and willing to spend a lot more to reach that goal if he is elected.

So what we have here is a spending scheme by the vice president to get the feds involved in recruiting, hiring and paying local teachers a Big Government initiative that would put Washington bureaucrats more deeply into the business of staffing and financing our schools. Mr. Gore would start with nearly half a trillion dollars in higher spending. Does anyone who follows federal spending think that federal involvement will end there? Will that sum continue to expand until local school costs become the federal government's primary responsibility?

Is that what we want? More federal involvement in our local schools? With all of the rules, regulations and rigid federal mandates that go with it? Didn't we settle this question with the defeat of Hillarycare?

Mr. Bush would also spend more money on education, but his proposal would spend a smaller sum $138 billion more over 10 years. His major focus is aimed at raising standards; having higher expectations; accountability; and, most important, dealing with failing inner-city schools by giving parents the means to take their kids to better schools outside the public school system.

How should we deal with teacher shortages? States and localities are already dealing with them through bonuses upon signing up and, where it is needed, raising salaries.

But alternative teacher certification is also a major untapped resource that could be used to recruit the teachers of the future.

There is a vast supply of immensely talented people among the growing number of retirees who are fully capable of teaching a variety of skills and subjects that they know better than many teachers. These are people who have spent their professional lives developing skills and knowledge and who want to continue working in some related field. Most do not have teaching degrees. However, a growing body of experts now say they do not need teaching degrees to be good teachers. This is an unmined teaching resource that needs to be brought into our public schoolrooms. Private schools have been doing it for years, with spectacular results.

In the meantime, the question that parents need to ask themselves about Mr. Gore's plan to federalize teacher payrolls is, "Who does it really benefit?" It sounds like a campaign payoff to the teachers unions to me.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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