Cover Story

Federal role: Staying out of the way by Beverly LaHaye

Memo to Washington: Fund your mandates, promote local control, and give parents educational choice. In other words, "No Child Left Behind" may require the federal government to leave itself behind ...

Issue: "Ideal schools," April 28, 2001

Education is the Great Equalizer in American life. For both the child of the migrant worker and the child of the millionaire, a good education means opportunity-and a poor education can mean being left behind. The theme announced by President Bush, "No Child Left Behind," represents a commitment that every child in 21st-century America will be intellectually equipped to compete and succeed. It is a noble wish, but it is a far cry from the reality that confronts us. What we are seeing, especially in our big cities, is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not becoming competitive. They are falling even further behind because of a crippling, inadequate education. The primary problem is that many of our public schools fail to impart the most basic educational skill of all: literacy. Too many students are still unable to read the diplomas they receive at the end of 12 years of schooling-to say nothing of the students who don't make it to graduation. The failure to attain literacy in the early grades means that for many students, the rest of their school career will be nothing better than unproductive "seat time." Without the ability to read, knowledge about history, literature, or science cannot be acquired in the higher grades. These students receive a social promotion at the end of each year as the reward for acceptable behavior. Then, whether this "education" ends with dropping out or collecting a meaningless diploma, the student enters the world unprepared to hold a job, establish a family, or exercise the rights of citizenship. Many of the students who receive a bilingual education have it even worse. They can graduate from high school unable even to speak the language of the society into which they are thrust. Two of the president's best features in "No Child Left Behind" are "Reading First" and the reform of bilingual education programs. Under the Bush reading plan, federal funds will be available only for reading programs that are backed by research. In other words, if it does not work, the federal government will no longer pay for it. And a review of more than 100,000 studies on how children learn to read gives us real evidence about what works. No one outside our graduate schools of education will be surprised to learn that the key to reading instruction is phonics. As for bilingual education, the federal government created the problem, and now the federal government will try to fix it. Current policies give schools financial incentives to keep children in classes that aren't taught in English. Instead, the president's plan will reward school districts based on how many students move out of bilingual programs, into English-language classes; and in no case shall any child be kept out of English-language classes for more than three years. An added bonus will accompany these reforms, I believe: Fewer children will be classified "disabled." The most burdensome and expensive federal mandate in education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates special education services for disabled children. Our notion of disabled children calls to mind the child who is blind, hearing-impaired, mentally retarded, or who suffers a serious chronic illness. It is certainly true that thousands of such children need and deserve special educational services. But the largest category of children in "special" education programs are those diagnosed with "learning disabilities," a dangerously vague catchall classification. It is my belief that many (if not most) of the children diagnosed with "learning disabilities" have simply never been taught properly how to read. Good reading instruction, I think we will learn, is the single best way to improve overall student performance and to reduce the IDEA caseload. Reducing the caseload through better reading instruction is just the beginning, however. When the federal government first set up the special education program, it promised to pay up to 40 percent of the additional cost. In reality, the federal contribution for many years was less than 10 percent of the cost of special education. In recent years, the Republican Congress has been trying to ease the financial burden on local school districts, but even now the federal contribution comes to only about 13 percent. A high priority for the Bush administration should be to move as quickly as possible-in no more than three years-toward fully funding special education up to the legal limit of 40 percent of the cost. Then, once that goal is attained, the administration should ask Congress to raise the limit on the federal contribution to 80 percent of the added cost, and work toward full funding at that level. Once local school districts no longer have to pour immense resources into federally mandated special education programs, they will be able to afford higher salaries for teachers, smaller classes, technology upgrades, a broader range of specialized courses, lower taxes for their communities, or whatever else a school board decides is its priority. The cost of funding IDEA is a financial albatross around the neck of every school board in the country, but especially for urban school districts where the percentage of students in need of special services tends to be higher. The federal government must take responsibility for paying for the programs it mandates. That's easier said than done. The cost of special education, a cost now borne by local school districts, exceeds the total budget of the Department of Education. But it can be done; the federal government can take responsibility. We begin by consolidating other programs aimed at elementary and secondary students. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and his colleague Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.) have been closely examining each of the more than 700 education programs administered by the federal government. Some are simply wasteful. Many more are of some value, but could be run just as well by states or local school districts. Only a relative handful of the programs truly needs to be run by the feds. We should applaud the outstanding research of these two congressmen and use their findings as the basis for streamlining the Department of Education. Eliminating redundant programs can achieve tremendous savings, enabling us to shift those dollars to special education. We can't leave the subject of education without discussing parental choice-parents being empowered to choose the right school, public or private, for their children. But I do not believe the Department of Education is the proper agency to implement a parental choice plan. When federal dollars are involved, bureaucrats decide who is a worthy recipient and what rules the recipients must follow. I believe it's inevitable that when an education department administers a choice program, the program must eventually clash with the independence of private education. The right kind of federal involvement in parental choice should come only through the Internal Revenue Service, in the form of tuition tax credits. IRS agents have little interest in running educational programs. Under such a system, neither the parents nor the schools are beholden to the federal government, and the federal Department of Education is not involved. Ultimately, the question of parental choice is about leveling the playing field between the children of poor families, who currently have to take whatever they get, and the children of wealthy families, who can shop around for the best. If money is the only issue, let the Treasury Department take care of it. President Bush has made the improvement of public education a high priority in his administration; his emphasis on local control and parental authority is the key to making this goal realistic and attainable.

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