Politics & Policy

Schoolyard Promises

The candidates weak sell on education.

In elementary schools, there is a popular strategy kids use to get other children to do things for them: bribery. “I’ll be your best friend” and “I’ll invite you to my birthday party” are two of the most popular offerings. Of course, kids being kids, such bargains rarely work out as promised. Unfortunately, these days it seems some adults will be kids too: Both John Kerry and George W. Bush are shamelessly proffering the equivalent of the schoolyard bribe to parents, promising them billions of dollars and educational excellence in exchange for their votes.

Look at George Bush: Touting the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Bush declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, “No matter what your circumstance, no matter where you live, your school will be the path to [the] promise of America.” He further proclaimed that to make it so “we are providing a record level of funding.” So he is: Between 2000 and 2004 discretionary spending by the U.S. Department of Education grew from $35.6 billion to $55.7 billion, a 56-percent increase. And his campaign website reveals he is offering more on top of what he has already spent: $250 million in annual funding to provide state reading and math assessments for grades three through eleven; $200 million for states that develop “performance plans” for students starting high school; $269 million to provide professional development for high-school math teachers; $1 billion in annual funding to make sure enough math, science, and English instruction is offered in vocational schools; and so on.

Unfortunately, Kerry’s promises are even more grandiose. Having promoted an “education plan for a stronger America” in his convention speech, his website declares that, if elected, Kerry will add $10 billion per year on average to the already massive outlays of No Child Left Behind, and will have the federal government float $24.8 billion dollars in “school-modernization bonds” to build and repair schools, among other promises.

All the money the candidates are offering, of course, is meant to be a proxy for academic success. Unfortunately, that massive federal spending will produce educational excellence is about as likely as an impulsive child making good on his bribe. Let history be the guide: According to inflation-adjusted data from the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1965 and 2002, federal expenditures on education exploded from $25 billion to $108 billion, and inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending in America’s public schools tripled. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind: A Guide for Policymakers, since 1965 “test scores nationwide have stubbornly remained flat.”

“Ah,” but Bush would explain, “these results preceded the days of accountability: NCLB ensures the money will be put to good use by making states set performance standards and by demanding those standards be met.” Unfortunately, reality suggests that NCLB is actually inducing states to lower their standards. Consider Michigan: It had relatively high performance standards prior to NCLB, but lowered them in 2002 when 1,500 of its schools were identified as “needing improvement” while Arkansas, whose students typically do much worse academically, had no schools on the list. And then there’s Washington State, for which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that “[t]he list of schools in the federal doghouse likely would be much longer had state officials not lowered the minimum scores students need to meet standards in math and reading.” (So much for the promise of “accountability.”)

Sadly, Kerry presents no options that are better than NCLB. Although he has endorsed minor reforms like tying teacher pay to performance, Kerry’s plan is basically the same old schoolyard deal: Offer billions of dollars to “fully fund” our education system–despite the fact that we already spend more per student than any other industrialized country–and hope the votes come in.

Neither candidate seems concerned that voters might have learned one of the earliest lessons taught in school: that bribes are often little more than empty promises. We must hope, then, that most parents have in fact learned that lesson, and will loudly refuse to be bought.

Neal McCluskey, an education-policy analyst with the Cato Institute, is the author of the recent policy analysis “A Lesson in Waste: Where Does All the Federal Education Money Go?

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