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Soundings

Steven Malanga
Give Us the Money!
President Bush’s education reforms are driving the public school establishment crazy.
Autumn 2004

Many Americans vastly underestimate how much money our public schools spend, a recent Educational Testing Services survey discovered. Nearly half of those polled thought the schools spend less than $5,000 per pupil. The actual figure: about $9,000 per pupil. Why the mistaken view? Blame the teachers' unions and their allies, who bombard the public with messages claiming that schools lack funds and resources. Nothing exemplifies the disinformation effort more powerfully than the campaign launched by the newly formed National Mobilization for Great Public Schools—a coalition of advocacy groups that includes the National Education Association (the biggest teachers' union), the radical union-allied community organizer ACORN, and Moveon.org, the angry George Soros–funded outfit whose chief mission is to defeat President Bush.

The coalition's main message, touted in local organizing events, newspaper ads, and a video, falsely condemns the Bush team for slashing education funding even as the president's No Child Left Behind Act imposes expensive new federal mandates on schools. “All too often our schools are not given the resources to meet our children's needs,” says the video, adding that federal aid to schools will “fall short” by $9 billion over the next five years. Meantime, the coalition is circulating a petition that exhorts the president to “increase, not cut, funding for our schools.”

The coalition says that it's trying to create “Education First” voters, whose top priority will be supporting candidates who back public education. But if that were true, then its main message should be that President Bush has done more for public education than any recent president. First, federal education spending under Bush is up nearly 50 percent over the final year of the Clinton presidency, so the coalition's charge that the president is stinting the schools is just bunk. More important, though, is what the money is paying for. Among other welcome reforms, the No Child Left Behind Act provides money for poor kids in failing schools to buy tutoring services—not just from the public schools but also from private educational institutions, including church-affiliated groups. The act also requires schools that want federal funds to use scientifically backed curricula—above all, phonics-based reading instruction—rather than the trendy but unproven programs favored by progressive educators. Also, schools that don't achieve minimum standards of student performance will lose funding.

That the president is insisting on accountability for federal education money is what's really driving the coalition—and the education lobby—nuts. For decades, the feds have poured many billions into local schools without requiring them to show even minimal improvement in student performance—a major reason that school test scores and graduation rates have stayed flat in the United States, even though real (inflation-adjusted) spending per pupil has doubled over the last 30 years. No longer will schools get a free pass.

Equally infuriating from the educational establishment's perspective, the president isn't emphasizing spending on the programs the union favors, such as pre-K and after-school initiatives run by the public schools themselves. Though there's no evidence that such programs help boost student performance, the education lobby loves them because they've fattened the public school bureaucracy, adding new administrators and education workers to the union ranks.

This new campaign is just the latest example of the huge gap between the rhetoric of education groups and the reality of public school spending. Consider the teacher from Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio, who complains on the coalition's video about a lack of federal education funding. What the video doesn't bother pointing out is that Cuyahoga Heights is one of the nation's richest school districts, spending about $16,000 per pupil—78 percent above the national average, and much more than other industrialized nations typically spend to educate their children.

Her testimony underscores an important truth—one that Americans may soon begin to see. For the public education lobby, no amount of money will ever be enough—and it should all come with no strings attached.

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