GOP, Democrats Both Have Flaws on Education

Posted July 23, 2003 at 3:35pm

Democrats are right to criticize President Bush and Congressional Republicans for underfunding education programs, but they deserve a rap of their own for trying to block reform experiments. [IMGCAP(1)]

Democrats did help Bush pass his “No Child Left Behind” standards-and-testing initiative in 2001 and now have every right to blast his and the GOP Congress’ failure to fully fund it.

And they have every right to knock Bush and the GOP for slashing taxes instead of aiding the states, many of which are cutting back on school funding and raising college tuitions.

House Republicans also deserve criticism for failing to provide extra money, approved by the Senate, that might rescue one of the first family’s favorite volunteer programs, Teach for America, from being cut off as a national AmeriCorps project.

At the same time, though, Democrats in Congress are refusing to support school choice in the District of Columbia and an eight-state pilot program to improve Head Start, the pre-school program for poor children.

Democrats say they are resisting the two GOP initiatives in order to protect public schools, but actually they are putting interest groups — teachers’ unions and Head Start teachers and administrators — ahead of children who would benefit from reform.

Vouchers to help poor parents transfer their children from failing public schools to private schools should be looked at as a means to rescue kids from poverty.

And school choice is viewed just that way by many parents — including a majority of African-Americans, according to surveys by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Center for Education Reform.

In 2002, the Joint Center found that 57 percent of black adults favored school vouchers, up from 48 percent in 1996. The Center for Education Reform found that 63 percent of U.S. adults — and 72 percent of blacks — supported use of tax money to send children to private schools.

It’s easy to understand why. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress — the federally funded “nation’s report card” — student test scores in public schools remain dismal, especially in urban areas.

Nationally, only 30 percent of public school fourth-graders and 31 percent of eighth-graders read at or above a “proficient” level, according to 2002 NAEP results.

But in inner-city Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C., those numbers range between 8 percent and 19 percent. In Washington, just 10 percent of elementary school pupils are proficient.

Test scores in D.C. are so low that Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams and school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz have decided to support a Republican voucher experiment for low-income families.

But Democrats, in spite of their party’s usual support for self-rule for the District of Columbia, are opposing the plan and may filibuster it when it hits the Senate floor.

One exception is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one-time mayor of San Francisco, who pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed piece last week that per-pupil spending in D.C. is $10,852 a year, third highest for any school district in the country.

“Based on the substantial amount of money pumped into the schools and the resultant test scores,” she wrote, “I do not believe that money alone is going to solve the problem.

“This is why I believe that the District should be allowed to try this pilot — particularly for its low-income students.”

The Senate bill would increase D.C. education funding by $40 billion, about $13 billion each for the public schools, charter schools and vouchers for 2,000 children. A House GOP version provides just $10 million.

Democrats also are opposing Head Start reform in spite of the fact that House Republicans propose merely an eight-state experiment to demonstrate whether improved academic input and higher teacher standards in the low-income pre-school program would improve childrens’ future performance.

According to a study issued in June by the Department of Health and Human Services, children in Head Start programs show modest improvements in vocabulary, letter recognition and early writing and mathematics skills, but still remain far below average national performance.

“Both higher achieving and lower achieving Head Start children have low scores overall and show limited progress,” according to the report.

“Children who were in the upper 25 percent of their Head Start class when they entered Head Start in 1997 showed no gains on any measure of cognitive ability over the course of the Head Start program year and actually experienced losses in some measures in comparison to national norms.”

The report said that more recent 2000 data “show modest improvement in results for children, but overall progress is still too limited. Children continue to lag behind national norms when they exit Head Start.” They also lag behind more advantaged children throughout their school years.

Democrats ought to be urging, not fighting, upgrades in Head Start’s academic rigor. Instead, they are denouncing the measure sponsored by Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), one of the most moderate of all House Republicans, to give eight high-performing states leeway to improve the program.

Democrats and the National Head Start Association denounce the Castle bill as a “block grant” that states could use for any purpose they want and claim it would lead to Head Start cuts because the states are strapped for cash.

In fact, though, the states would have to agree to maintain or increase Head Start spending levels. Castle’s bill authorizes a $200 million increase for Head Start nationally.

Opinion polls show that neither party now holds an advantage over the other in public approval of its education policies. In fact, the public should be disapproving of both parties’ performance — the GOP on funding, the Democrats on reform.