Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

Return to spender

States have not touched some $5.8 billion in federal education funds available since 2000, and another $84 million has reverted back to the U.S. Treasury unused, according to reports released this month by the U.S. Education Department. "Federal education funding is increasing faster than states can spend it," said Dave Schnittger, communications director for the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee. "The system is flush with cash and the mechanics of it simply can't keep up with the rate of increase."

The department released the list of states' federal education funds after months of Democratic haranguing on education funding. Some Democrats have called for as much as an additional $6 billion for the Title I program for disadvantaged youth. The unspent $5.8 billion falls under six federal programs, including Title I.

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Over the New Year, Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) highlighted Missouri's unused $72 million. Other states have even more funds in store, including New York, with $688.6 million (12.2 percent of its total federal aid), and Ohio, with $408.5 million (16.5 percent). Nationally, an estimated 8 percent of federal funds remain untapped, according to the department.

Meanwhile, a number of states left funding untouched for more than three years so that it reverted back to the federal government last fall.

Sophomore slump

The political seas have not been kind to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law two years ago this month. Democrats' policy gains in the legislation, their incessant charges of underfunding, and the education establishment's lack of cooperation have threatened from the outset to redirect NCLB from the increased opportunity and flexibility that President Bush and fellow Republicans originally sought.

NCLB provides new options to parents, charter schools, school districts, and states. Parents whose children attend chronically under-performing schools may send their children to alternate public schools after two years and choose private supplementary tutoring the subsequent year. In some areas, however, parents know nothing about such opportunities; Pam Benigno of Colorado's Independence Institute has documented how some districts misled parents about their choices.

Meanwhile, states, districts, and some charter schools may participate in a flexibility plan that recalls early conservative ideas for reforming the law that preceded NCLB, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Seven states and 80 school districts may combine funds under several federal programs and use them for any activity authorized under NCLB, bypassing red tape and setting their own priorities. Last year, Florida and the Seattle school district became the first participants in the flexibility program.

During a Knoxville, Tenn., school visit this month, President Bush announced he would also continue to seek increases in major federal education programs. The president will ask Congress for another $1 billion each for the Title I program for disadvantaged youth (see above), currently funded at about $12 billion, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, now running at $10 billion annually.

Meanwhile, polling by Americans for Better Education indicates that Americans don't think spending is the best answer to the multiple-choice problem of educational quality. When asked whether increasing funding or raising standards and accountability was more important to improve education, only 30 percent chose more funding, while 60 percent favored standards and accountability. Even self-identified moderates preferred standards and accountability by a 58-32 margin.

President Bush told Roman Catholic educators gathered at the White House on Jan. 9 that he would call for a $50 million choice initiative in his 2005 budget, scheduled for release by early February. The choice incentive fund would award federal grants to communities and organizations that provide options to children "trapped in underperforming schools."

Jennifer Marshall
Jennifer Marshall


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