Gaming for Education Dollars

Federal bill long on money, short on reform

Yesterday President Bush visited several schools to celebrate his signature on the new federal education law. Many pro-choice education reform groups are celebrating this legislation as a victory for schoolchildren and giving Bush a pass for backing away from school choice. They shouldn’t.

The Republicans are a long way from their 1995 agenda for abolishing the Department of Education. This new legislation represents the largest-ever increase in federal dollars for education and is accompanied by the largest-ever increase in federal regulation of schools. In exchange, states promise that they will raise student achievement. It is a costly wager, and the odds are not good.

Congress has authorized $26.5 billion in federal spending on elementary and secondary education for fiscal year 2002. That’s $4 billion more than Bush requested, $6 billion less than Democrats wanted, and $8 billion more than last year’s spending level. The total could climb to more than $37 billion a year by the end of the authorization period. That is more than triple the amount in the 1994 reauthorization.

Officially, the law requires state-administered testing in reading and mathematics for every student in grades three through eight. That probably won’t happen. The 1994 reauthorization ostensibly required states to develop standards, create tests based on those standards, and begin testing students. Yet most states still have not complied with the 1994 law (there are no sanctions for noncompliance), and the new law’s testing provisions are even more demanding. Currently only nine states meet the new law’s requirements for reading and math testing. It seems unlikely that states will comply when their current behavior has resulted in a funding increase.

The education bill has been a boon to Title I — the government’s largest and longest-running failed education program. (See “Schoolhouse Crock,” in the August/September 2001 issue of Reason.) The most recent results of the 2000 NAEP tests for fourth-grade reading paint a bleak picture for Title I: 63 percent of blacks, 58 percent of Hispanics, 47 percent of urban students, and 60 percent of poor children scored below “basic” in reading-which for all practical purposes means they cannot read. Yet Title I has received a 22 percent funding increase, with urban districts receiving a windfall in federal funds. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, will receive $309.5 million in FY 2002 Title I funding-$87.2 million more than last year.

While the urban districts will receive the most money, they will also be the most resistant to accountability requirements in the law. Los Angeles Superintendent Roy Romer has repeatedly told reporters that districts will learn to game the system and lower standards to make sure all students meet the requirements. States already game the system. In California, the rate of improvement required each year is so low that it could take a failing school 20 years to bring all students to proficiency.

The small victories for school choice are dubious at best. After children spend three years in a failing school, parents can transfer them to another, better-performing school within the same district or receive money for private tutoring. This provision will have little effect on the many students stuck in districts where every school is below the national average. If a child lives in Compton, California, for example, it will be difficult to find a better school within the district. Schools also retain the right to deny entrance due to overcrowding. In places such as Los Angeles and Miami, every school is crowded. And while tutoring is better than nothing, it is hardly a replacement for receiving a solid reading and math foundation to begin with.

Real education reform would give parents a way to find a better education now, instead of waiting years for their failing school to improve. Until the federal government allows real education reforms, such as universal tax credits or actual vouchers that give students a right of exit, it will have little impact on the educational experience of students who need better schools while they’re still in school.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.