When will Washington ever learn?

National | There's a lot not to like about federal education policy, but one fundamental reform should go to the head of the class: Policymakers' emphasis must shift from "saving the system" to helping the kids learn-because, ultimately, education is not about schools; it's about students

Issue: "How shall we then govern?," Oct. 28, 2000

The U.S. Department of Education, with a budget this year of $38 billion, provides 6 percent of all funding for the nation's public schools-and 50 percent of the regulations. Against such a backdrop, the November election is likely to bring either a huge increase in spending and regulation, or the opportunity to reform the department. A new secretary of education committed to the latter should work to bring about four vital changes in the big department: (1) Put money in the hands of parents to choose a range of learning services for their children. The Department of Education will spend $8 billion on Title 1 compensatory education programs to help disadvantaged children improve their academic performance. The per-pupil value of these programs is around $600-700. Title 1 has long been criticized as a jobs program for depressed neighborhoods. But rather than forcing children to get tutoring and other academic help from the schools that have failed them, the next education secretary should work with Congress so that Title 1 money would be provided directly to eligible families in debit-card fashion. Under such a reform, families would be able to spend their Title 1 "learning grants" or "brain stamps" on a wide variety of learning services from the public-school system, providers outside the public system, or some combination of the two. Learning products or services eligible for purchase would include but not be restricted to private tutorial services, books, other learning materials, a computer once every three years, learning software, high-speed Internet access, and learning services provided via the Internet. All of the department's programs that now fund providers of educational services should be reviewed to consider how money can be sent directly to the learners. Programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers that fund after-school programs, or community-based technology centers that attempt to help community residents gain technology skills, should be examined with a view toward short-circuiting existing bureaucratic processes and procedures. The use of the debit-card approach and other similar innovations would help address the lack of financial controls at the Education Department. Congressional oversight committees have found that $6 billion of the department's $38 billion budget is presently unaccounted for. Auditors are unable to audit the books because the department fails to use generally accepted public accounting practices. Even in Washington, $6 billion is real money. (2) Press for a comprehensive, long-overdue review of federal bilingual education programs. Bilingual education rests on the assumption that non-English-speaking children will learn faster if taught in a combination of their native language and English. But such a teaching approach has been thoroughly repudiated, with even die-hard former supporters of bilingual education in California acknowledging the superior performance of non-English-speaking children on achievement tests when they are placed in programs that teach them English as fast as possible-what is called the "immersion approach." The secretary should pursue a two-pronged approach. First, he should work with Congress to remove the current restriction on the use of bilingual education funds. That restriction limits to just 25 percent the amount that may be used for the English-immersion approach like the one enacted in California by referendum. Forcing states to spend 75 percent of the money on dual language programs, demonstrated in California to be failures, rewards political allies instead of helping children hop onto the bottom rungs of the American ladder of economic opportunity. Here too, the new secretary should review English-immersion funds with a view toward funding learners directly rather than sending the money to providers. Bilingual programs have been riddled with questionable spending. The Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit public-policy think tank, has shown how bilingual education funds were used for a trip to Costa Rican rain forests, for creating a written version of a native American language, and for teaching Chinese character painting or Tai Chi. Such uses fail on the grounds of fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers. Even worse, they fail to meet the moral obligation to teach English to non-English-speaking Hispanic, Lakota (Sioux), and Chinese children. And as with the Title 1 money, the education secretary should in the area of bilingual education consider working with Congress to provide direct assistance to learners in the form of debit cards or other mechanisms. Funding for existing programs designed to serve the children of migrant workers, for bilingual professional development, and for bilingual education instruction services would instead provide $640 million directly to the targeted families-for the learners rather than the bureaucracies of the providers. (3) Moral suasion in the District of Columbia and elsewhere. The educational system in the District of Columbia is among the worst in the nation. The children stuck in these schools cry out for help. While the Department of Education does not have direct control of funds for education in D.C., the funding is federal. The new secretary should extend a helping hand by forcefully using moral suasion to build support in Congress to use the entire D.C. education budget to provide learning debit cards to each D.C. family at an approximate value of $7,500 per child. Any amount not used in a calendar year would be rolled over into an educational savings account to be used for learning in the future. The new secretary should also remind the country that parents have the right and the responsibility to control their children's educational destiny. He should speak out against the abuse of the educational monopoly and not mask those failures as the Clinton administration has done. When colleges and universities use racial quotas to favor one group at the expense of others, the education secretary should speak out and his department's civil-rights division should act. The new secretary should not cover up testing scandals. When the education establishment in some states excludes children who are struggling from standardized tests and then claims improved student performances, the secretary should speak out. When the education establishment in some states cooks the books by curving results and tells parents that their children are proficient in math when they are not, the secretary should speak out. (4) Aggressively shift the department's resources to research and development designed to expand the Internet learning-services market. The new secretary of education should work with Congress to answer two questions. What is the appropriate federal role for learning research and development? How can these public expenditures help people cope with the coming economy, one that puts less value on degrees and diplomas and more on skills that can be acquired rapidly to address this week's client's challenge? The next secretary of education should also work with Congress to abolish politically correct programs and to expand research into home-based learning. As our economy moves away from the institutional requirements of the industrial age such as factories, schools, and day-care centers, work and learning will more often be going on at home. Instead of emphasizing expensive programs without any research basis (such as the idea of increasing classroom productivity by cutting class sizes), the new secretary of education should work to raise the level of assistance going directly to the learners. Enabling them to get what they need-faster, cheaper, and better-is at the core of the new knowledge-based economy.

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