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Jewish World Review/Nov. 10, 1998/ 21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez What did you expect?

DUMPING NEWT GINGRICH won't do much to reverse Republicans' failing electoral fortunes unless GOP members come up with a winning policy agenda for the 107th Congress, and so far they seem clueless on what that might be.

Democrats, on the other hand, are focused and ready, thanks in part to a coherent, national campaign in which they promised to 'save' Social Security, restrict the way HMOs deliver health care and reduce class size in public schools. On this last issue, Republicans in Congress conceded defeat even before the election, approving $1.2 billion in extra federal aid to hire 30,000 new elementary school teachers for the 1999 school year.

For years now, congressional Republicans have allowed Democrats to posture as the 'education party,' never making education issues a top priority even during the last four years, when the GOP finally took control of both houses of Congress. Part of the problem for Republicans is their insistence that education is a local issue.

Philosophically, Republicans are more comfortable punting to local government on the tough issues like education standards and school curriculum. Meanwhile, Republicans have helped Democrats pump more and more federal dollars into an already bloated education bureaucracy. Next year, courtesy of the Republican-controlled Congress, the federal education budget will exceed $38 billion. And what will those federal dollars buy? More votes for Democrat candidates from teacher union members -- and a second-rate education for American kids.

If the Republicans ever wanted to get serious about reforming education, next year would be the perfect opportunity. The landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act comes up for re-authorization in the next Congress. This legislation was first passed in 1965 and was the camel's nose under the tent in the federal takeover of education. Instead of tinkering with the existing legislation, Republicans should come up with an entirely new formula that rewards success, encourages competition and rids school districts of incompetent teachers and administrators.

Republicans could start by scrapping the existing formula for dispensing funds for disadvantaged students, the more than $7 billion that goes to Title I programs. Under the current law, local school districts receive money based on how poorly students perform. According the Department of Education, "the school must target Title I services to children who are failing, or most at risk of failing, to meet state academic standards."

The idea behind the program was to concentrate limited funds where they were most needed. But like many well-intentioned liberal solutions, Title I actually rewards the very behavior it is attempting to change, in this case poor academic performance. Why not devise a new funding formula that rewards school districts which show improvement in student performance, allowing school districts themselves to experiment with how best to boost scores? The same rationale could be used to reward schools that successfully teach non-English-speaking children to speak, read and write English: The quicker the children learn the new language, the more money the school would receive.

Since 1965, the federal government has spent trillions of dollars on public elementary and secondary education, with little to show for its investment. In the 25 years between 1971 and 1996, reading scores among 17-year-olds went up exactly 0.4 percent, while per-pupil expenditures on public elementary and secondary education almost doubled (in constant dollars). Meanwhile, American eighth- and 12th-grade students do worse in math than students from all the G-7 countries: Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Any other enterprise that received such a poor a return on investment would be out of business long ago.

But if Republicans have failed to show leadership on education issues, it's the Democrats who have been the true cynics. Their only answer has been to pour more money into failing schools. The president's latest gambit -- a promised 100,000 new teachers paid for with federal dollars over the next seven years -- will have exactly zero impact in improving education. The only way those 100,000 new teachers could make a difference is if they replaced 100,000 incompetent and indifferent teachers now in the classroom.

A real debate over how best to improve public education could provide Republicans with a way to reach out to women and minority voters, who've shunned the GOP in every recent election. But first Republicans will have to offer more than tired platitudes about local control.

Up

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3/4/98: The Press' Learning-disability
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12/24/97: Affirmative alternatives: New initiatives for equal opportunity are out there
12/17/97: Opening a window of opportunity (a way out of bilingual education for California's Hispanic kids)


©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.