Do as DoEd Says, Not as DoEd Does

Published June 1, 2001

In his ambitious education reform package, President George W. Bush has proposed holding schools more accountable for the way they spend federal tax dollars, including a reduction in funding for those that don’t meet performance standards.

The Bush plan would increase spending at and through the U.S. Department of Education, which in turn would send more money to schools that succeed, and less to some that fail.

The approach raises some interesting questions: Will the department itself be held to meaningful standards of accountability for the way it spends its allocation of federal tax dollars? How will the department’s performance be measured, and what will be the rewards for doing a good job and the penalties for doing a bad job?

The questions are far from academic, as was made clear when Department of Education officials recently admitted to Congress that approximately $450 million in education spending, sought in audits over the last three fiscal years, is in fact “missing.” Congress has conducted hearings on the department’s casual approach to bookkeeping for several years.

As Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-Michigan) confided to an Alexis de Tocqueville Institution researcher last year after one of the audit hearings, “they just tell us they can’t find the money and give us a smug smile–because there doesn’t seem to be any way to discipline the department when it doesn’t perform, no matter how brazenly.”

The Bush proposal doesn’t seem any more inclined to discipline the department. An estimate from the President’s Office of Management and Budget, provided to Teacher Choice, a research program of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, shows the department adding “approximately 750” new staff members over the next three years, an expansion of more than 20 percent.

The President’s budget proposal calls for the Department of Education’s budget to nearly double from 2000 through 2006, and virtually triple in a decade, from $23 billion in 1996 to $60.1 billion in 2006 if Bush is reelected. Not only would Bush give the department a huge increase in absolute dollar terms, but he would increase the department’s budget by a higher percentage per year than the combined average of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.

Congress dealt the President’s spending plan a blow in early April, but not because the plan was too extravagant. Many members faulted the plan for not increasing the department’s budget enough, saying education spending rises only about 6 percent in the current year’s budget. Senate Democrats complaining about the President’s plan were joined by a key Republican, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Jim Jeffords of Vermont.

Jeffords, cooperating with his committee’s ranking member, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, wants far more for education than the President has proposed. For example, where the President’s plan asked for an 8 percent increase in federal funds for K-12 education, Jeffords’ committee reported a bill that would increase federal education funding by 52 percent, to a record $27.7 billion.

Teachers’ Perspective

One question that hasn’t been raised during this jockeying to spend more money on education is whether classroom teachers–those who produce the education–want more federal money. New money is likely to come with rules and regulations to combat the waste and lack of accountability uncovered in U.S. Department of Education audits. It’s not clear teachers would welcome money wrapped in red tape.

A 1997 poll, for example, found that more than half of Washington, DC teachers cited the high cost and complexity of school administration as the main cause of public education woes in the nation’s capital. A 1999 poll of 30 award-winning teachers at de Tocqueville’s National Teachers Summit said teachers’ top frustration was “too many rules and restrictions on (the) ability to teach effectively.”

An informal survey of teachers from Maine to California, conducted in March, found teachers supporting the principles of “accountability” in the Bush education plan–but fretting about the strings it might put on them. Those teachers seem to regard federal and even state education bureaucracies warily.

“If schools are going to be held accountable,” as a Teacher Choice member from Illinois put it, “maybe the federal department should be, too.”

Larry Parker is the senior reporter for Teacher Choice at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Washington, DC. He can be reached by email at [email protected].