The President Plays the Simon Part; Congress, alas, is Paula

Despite Bush cuts, Congress keeps ineffective education programs alive

Each season of the hugely popular “American Idol” starts with a few episodes featuring talent-challenged, but very entertaining, contestants taking their shot at pop superstardom. Think William Hung, who earned his 15 minutes of fame by butchering tunes. By now, as in past years, the program has discarded the less gifted vocalists and gotten to its core: talented singers vying for votes to help them survive weekly cuts.

While much less entertaining than “American Idol’s” evaluation process, the Bush administration recently conducted a merit-based evaluation of the effectiveness of taxpayer-funded federal education programs. As a result, 48 programs were voted off the taxpayer payroll.

Even with the cuts, Bush plans to spend more than $56 billion on education in 2006; K-12 education funding will have increased by 51 percent since 2001. Believe it or not, states have had a difficult time spending their federal increases over the last few years because of inept bureaucratic budgeting processes at the state and district level that let the funding lapse rather than redirecting the money to local classrooms. At the beginning of 2004, states had $5.75 billion in unspent federal education funding that had accumulated between 2000 and 2003, and today that figure tops $6 billion.

Unfortunately, while Bush tries to play the role of brutally honest Simon Cowell – sending programs packing and sticking to his cuts – it is likely that Congress will be much more like Paula Abdul, saying kind words and keeping ineffective programs alive. True to form, the Senate recently added $5.4 billion in education spending to its budget.

Congress has a long history of continually funding questionable education programs. The 2005 appropriations bill contained over 1,200 education pork projects, according to the Heritage Foundation: $450,000 of taxpayer money for a Baseball Hall of Fame outreach program using baseball to teach students distance learning; $25,000 for the study of mariachi music; and $725,000 for the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, to name a few.

The beneficiaries of these pork projects won’t go quietly, proclaiming Bush is gutting education and howling with indignation about the value they provide to American children. A cable news channel recently ran an emotional story on plans to cut Even Start, a 15-year-old, $225 million federal literacy program for low-income families. Three separate evaluations have shown the program is not succeeding.

Similarly, there has been an outcry over plans to eliminate the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology state block-grant program, which supporters call the primary source of federal funding for school technology. Their assertion is ridiculous in light of the fact that another federal program, E-Rate, provides schools with more than $2 billion each year in technology grants.

On “American Idol,” the public can vote for its favorite contestant. Unless they can afford a private school, American parents don’t get to vote for, or send their children to their favorite, i.e. the best, public school. Bush’s 2006 education budget takes money from failing programs and moves it to help ensure that students and parents have more meaningful choices and educational opportunities – including $50 million that will fund new school choice programs providing competitive awards to states, school districts and community-based nonprofit organizations that provide low-income parents with more opportunities to transfer their children to higher-performing schools and $219 million to support new charter schools that would give parents another option to failing public schools.

Singing talent and tax dollars are both scarce resources. The only way to ensure that education dollars are spent on effective programs is to evaluate the evidence. Education programs should have to demonstrate tangible results if they want to hear, “You’re through to the next round.”

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