- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

In one of this year’s most popular comedies, Will Farrell plays a pathetic, but humorous beer-bellied guy, returning to college to form a fraternity of like-minded souls haplessly “flunking out” of living in the present. A few kegs short of their undergraduate drinking requirements, Mr. Farrell and his fellow bacchanal-loving friends relive their misspent youth in the movie “Old School.”

This week in Congress, art imitates reality, as lawmakers address two major education issues — vouchers for D.C. schools in the House and funding for elements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in the Senate. The debate demonstrates that failure to move forward affects more than just over-the-hill frat boys. When it comes to reforms that produce accountability, many in the educational establishment and their liberal allies on the Hill are “old school.” Moreover, these entrenched interests’ tactics receive an “F” in Candor 101, demonstrating more interest in preserving the status quo than providing quality education to kids.

This week’s debate authorizing a K-12 scholarship program for low-income students in the District is a case in point. It’s a modest, fair and needed proposal, yet it’s come under fierce attack from D.C. school unions and other liberal interest groups, like People for the American Way. To his credit, Mayor Anthony Williams is a strong proponent. He wrote lawmakers recently saying, “change has not occurred rapidly enough to provide relief to the tens of thousands of students in schools still needing a shake-up.”

Opponents argue that private schools are too expensive and the scholarships would not cover the costs — another fishy assertion in a sea of red herring. Last week, the CATO Institute released a study showing that a $5,000 voucher per student provides access to most private schools in America.

Many education scholars are the epicenter of the anti-school choice movement. Yet, the reform tremors are even spreading to the academy. For example, the recent issue of Political Science Quarterly includes a devastating essay by Joseph P. Viteritti of Princeton University titled “Schoolyard Revolutions: How Research on Urban School Reform Undermines Reform.” Mr. Viteritti concludes most of the so-called “academic experts” offer nothing but empty talk. “More conversation about what the defenders of the status quo oppose ? namely markets and choice — than what they would do to improve the system,” he asserts.

Education funding is another area where proponents of the status quo have been cutting their “candor” classes again. This week in the Senate, Sen. Ted Kennedy and other liberals will whine that the Labor-HHS appropriations bill fails to fund the NCLB Act at the “fully authorized level.” This is a bogus argument.

First, according to the House Education and Workforce Committee, “NCLB never authorized any specific amount for FY 2003 and beyond.” Second, the federal government is now spending far more money for education than at any other time in American history. Third, even if the NCLB had set overall spending levels, funding programs at the “authorized” level is highly unusual. “Authorizations are a ‘hunting license,’ one former Senate Appropriations staff member said. “It opens the door for future appropriations. Yet, in any given year, Congress prioritizes and funds programs below authorized levels. I’d hate to see what the budget deficit would look like if we funded every program at the authorization level.”

Despite the chicken-little tactics, the Senate legislation funds most of the important aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act at higher levels than last year. The “cuts” are in the categorical grants, championed by liberal interest groups, and some other smaller programs that have nothing to do with NCLB.

Voters understand the problems in American education are bigger than just funding. A recent poll by Public Opinion Strategies shows 54 percent believe “accountability” is the best way to improve education, compared to 41 percent who think federal spending is the answer.

Beyond the white-hot rhetoric of this week’s debate is a deeper moral question. Will Congress side with the failed “old school” ideas that deny parents choice and equate quality education with indiscriminate federal spending, or support new and innovative approaches? Consider Mr. Viteritti’s challenge: “Targeted choice makes good sense because it is more equitable than the current arrangement. The burden of proof should be shifted to those who would perpetuate a system that provides different opportunities to different people. A system of democratic schooling should strive to give every student a decent education, and every parent the right to decide what is best for their own children.”

Congress should revoke tenure for the “old school” interests who resist accountability and change. Unlimited federal spending will not fix all that ails America’s schools — particularly in poor, urban areas. Decent education policy provides choice and funds critical programs that get results — a novel concept in liberalism’s worn out “old school” curriculum.

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