Article Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette
What is the most critical issue that the incoming session of Congress must address?
It may well be reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the primary law pertaining to the federal government’s role in K-12 public education.
ESEA was established in 1965. Today it is an umbrella for more than 60 federal programs that receive over $12 billion in annual funding. This encompasses programs to aide poor children, bilingual education, teacher training, and a plethora of other endeavors. ESEA’s funds — and regulations — impact every public school in the country.
The largest ESEA program is Title I, which is designed to help poor children. Title I will receive more than $8 billion in federal funds this year. Yet, throughout ESEA’s history, Title I has had a questionable performance at best.
For example, in 1980, education critic Jonathan Kozol observed, “If Title I were not a mere expanded version of the errors of the past, we would not have more illiterate adults today than in the year in which that legislation took effect.” In 1993, a U.S. Department of Education report found, “The program today does not appear to be helping to close the learning gap.”
One way to fundamentally change ESEA would be to block-grant its funds to states and/or local school districts so that money could be deployed more efficiently — with federal red tape eliminated and parental input strengthened.
Such a prospect is anathema to special interest groups in education who want to continue to have these programs directed from Washington, D.C., where they are better able to influence them. These special interests also dread the prospect of some parents, communities, and states deciding to use this money for school choice programs – notably low-income scholarships (vouchers) and charter schools.
Already, education special interests have been circling the wagons to protect ESEA as we know it. The National Education Association has implored its members to send a lobbyist anecdotes about successful ESEA activities. The National School Boards Association has already provided testimony to the U.S. Department of Education about why ESEA should not allow any meaningful school choice options (i.e., low income scholarships).
By contrast, Frank Riggs, a retiring Congressman who chairs the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over ESEA has observed, “bold, daring, fundamental and real reform” of ESEA is necessary. To the Congressman, this should involve block grants and expanded forms of school choice. Making sure that federal funds can be used for voucher programs so that parents can immediately take direct action to improve their child’s education are important steps in this regard.
Given that special interests now have a substantial role in education, and that our schools today are mediocre, isn’t it time that parents and local communities had greater control over education? If we hope to make dramatic improvements, the answer is an emphatic yes.
About the Author: Paul F. Steidler is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
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