The report cards keep getting worse. On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest test results on how well (or, to be more accurate, how poorly) students in government-run schools read. The results indicate that less than a third of our fourth-graders are proficient in reading and the gap between the best and worst readers is widening.
Secretary of Education Roderick Paige understated the case when he said the evidence shows that federal education policy has not adequately addressed the needs of low-achieving students. "After spending $125 billion of Title 1 money (that's the government's main education program for the poor) over 25 years, we have virtually nothing to show for it," said Paige.
So what is government's solution to this scandalous news? Why, spend more money, of course. Members of Congress in both parties and President George Bush want to substantially increase spending for the Education Department -- which already has a budget higher than any other federal agency.
A tentative agreement has been reached between the Senate and the White House to allow parents of students in persistently failing schools to demand private tutoring paid for with federal dollars. This would mean that in schools failing children, taxpayers would be paying twice: once for the schools that are failing to teach kids how to read and again for tutors who will be teaching them what the failing schools should have taught them in the first place.
After so much has been spent on government schools, it's an outrage that millions of fourth-graders perform below basic reading levels.
There is no connection between spending and educational achievement. There is a connection between illiteracy and crime. Numerous studies have found that large percentages of the prison population cannot read well enough to get jobs paying enough to achieve more than the lowest standard of living.
The growing federal education bureaucracy is increasingly incompetent. Last week, the Education Department's chief inspector said that in the final three years of the Clinton Administration, the department lost nearly half a billion dollars in waste, fraud and errors. An audit revealed numerous instances of poor oversight resulting in cases in which money was stolen or improperly spent, and others in which two checks were sent for the same grant, or money was never distributed. The inspector discovered 21 employees could write checks for up to $10,000 without supervision. An audit found that 19,000 of these checks were written, totaling $23 million.
There are many examples that show spending and educational success are not related. New Jersey, which had the highest per-pupil expenditure in the 1996-97 school year ($10,241) and the second smallest pupil-to-teacher ratio, received nearly 50 percent of its public education funding from federal sources. Yet its students ranked 39th on the 1998 Scholastic Aptitude Test. Conversely, Minnesota, which stood 27th in per-pupil spending ($5,826), received the highest ranking in student achievement on the same test, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council's "Report Card on American Education."
The Heritage Foundation's Dr. Stuart Butler says that serious studies of major federal education programs either don't exist or suggest that the programs are unsuccessful.
Perhaps further explaining the presence of so many functional illiterates in our midst is a Dec. 12, 1999, story in The Los Angeles Times, which found that "Tens of thousands of students in California's special education system have been placed there not because of a serious mental or emotional handicap, but because they were never taught to read properly." They are called "learning disabled," or suffering from various "disorders." One might reasonably conclude that labeling failures "learning disabled" is a strategy by the education monopoly to cover-up its failure to provide an adequate return on the taxpayer's money.
Failure to read, or to read well, leads to many other problems for students, schools and parents. Reading skills (or the lack of them) develop early. A proper response is for parents to turn off the TV, read to their kids, urge that the historically successful phonics system be taught in schools and lobby for education choice in one form or another, thus empowering parents -- not the unions and politicians who have given us the present decrepit system.
The bumper sticker says, "If you can read this, thank a teacher." Whom do you thank, or blame, if your child can't read the bumper sticker?
Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.
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