- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

There is something strikingly wrong about the so-called school-reform debate. Whether one listens to Sen. Teddy Kennedy regarding President Bushs education reform plan or remarks from D.C. School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz regarding Mayor Williams school budget proposal, the rhetoric hums to the mo money refrain.
Supporters refuse to debate the debaters on ideas alone, or even the dollars and sense of, say, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which drives much of the federal funding for public schools. For example, Mr. Kennedy, ranking Democrat on the Senates Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, disbelieves test scores that consistently show under-par reading skills of American children in general and big-city children in particular. So, instead of framing the Democrats debate against the Bush plan on how to raise literacy levels, he and his cohorts shape their arguments in terms of dollars and cents. Consequently, the public perceives reauthorization of ESEA as $15 billion (which the Democrats are proposing) vs. $9.1 billion (which the Republicans are proposing) when the true debate is money (the Democrats) vs. ideas (the Republicans).
Mr. Bushs ideas on education reform make perfectly good sense. The problem is that a lot of folks might not even know what they are because of the song-and-dance routines of the Democrats and special interests. It is no coincidence, for example, that the teachers unions, who love Democrats more than they do the poor black and Hispanic children in their classrooms, chose this week, the week the Senate was scheduled to begin debating ESEA, to criticize particular aspects of the Bush initiative.
One calls for increased funding for charter schools, and the other allows parents to use federal money to pay for private tutoring. "Make no mistake about it," the American Federation of Teachers said in its statement: "Additional funding in this bill is critically important. But even more important is the need to support proven initiatives that will make a positive difference for students and teachers."
"Such proposals," the National Education Association (NEA) said, "shift resources away from public schools while eliminating accountability for the use of federal funds." To the contrary, such proposals shift resources toward a precise target (the student) and, moreover, into the hands of those ultimately accountable (the parents).
The Districts school board president could prove a worthy spokeswoman for both the AFT and the NEA. Like those two unions, Mrs. Cafritz opposes school choice and supports building bureaucracies. She reiterated as much at a recent forum at the Heritage Foundation, where a highly successful D.C. elementary school principal elaborated on how she uses technology to teach, among other things, foreign language because her school has no foreign-language instructor. Mrs. Cafritz, in repartee regarding an inquiry about how private funding can help public education, said that school systems could be helped in this respect with "network administration" and "application assistance." Guess hiring foreign-language instructors didnt come to mind.
Indeed, there are no funds in either of the three education-budget proposals currently on Capitol Hill which is certainly a good thing because taxpayers can ill-afford as much.
Nor, on a far more serious note, can they afford to continue gambling with the academic lives of disadvantaged children who, year after year, are promised a brighter future only for Congress to cave to the mo money demands of special interests.
Studies rebut the unions age-old assertions that class size has an effect on student outcomes, and there is an endless stream of evidence to refute claims that Head Start is worthy of mo money as well.
On the other hand, as long as unions whose membership includes principals, administrators, college faculty and nurses, as well as teachers refuse to be held accountable, the results will be more of the same, too. Consider the lousy results revealed in the latest study of fourth-graders reading skills. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, most of Americas school children cannot read anything appropriate for their particular age group, and only one-third of fourth-graders can read close to the third-grade level. (The scores for D.C. students were an utter embarrassment, by the way). At the same time, colleges and universities are spending more and more resources on remedial programs because Americas elementary and secondary schools fail to deliver.
To be sure, funding for public education should increase every single year, and the question by how much is never easily answered. However, this do-si-do with Congress and the unions needs to stop.
What will the children think?
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