Commentary: Current Public School Funding Is Unwisely Idolized

Published June 1, 2005

Each season of the hugely popular Fox television series American Idol starts with a few episodes featuring talent-challenged but very entertaining contestants taking their shot at pop superstardom. Think of William Hung, who earned his 15 minutes of fame by butchering Ricky Martin tunes.

By the end of the season, the program has discarded the less-gifted vocalists and found a new winner–a talented singer with an entire career ahead, chosen through national call-in votes.

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, which means 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. Inept bureaucratic budgeting processes at the state and district levels 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; today, that figure tops $6 billion.

Unfortunately, while President George W. Bush tries to play the role of brutally honest Simon Cowell, sending programs packing and sticking to his cuts, it is likely Congress will be much more like Paula Abdul, saying words that soothe but mean very little, while keeping ineffective programs alive. The Senate recently added $5.4 billion in education spending to its budget.

Dial “P” for “Pork”

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

The beneficiaries of these pork projects won’t go quietly, but will instead proclaim Bush is “gutting education” and will howl 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.

No Choice Allowed

On American Idol, the public can vote for its favorite contestant. But unless they can afford the tuition for a private school, American parents don’t get to choose their children’s school. They cannot send their children to whichever local public school provides the best education.

Bush’s 2006 education budget takes money from failing programs and moves it to help ensure 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. Bush also provided $219 million to support new charter schools that would give parents another alternative to failing public schools.

Singing talent and tax dollars are both scarce resources. The only way to ensure 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 ([email protected]) is education director of the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. This oped originally appeared in the April 10 edition of the Orange County Register and is reprinted with permission.