Commentary

Voters, Don’t Accept Schoolyard Bribes

This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun on October 12, 2004.
In elementary schools, there is a popular strategy kids use to get other children to do things for them: bribery. “I’ll be your best friend” and “I’ll invite you to my birthday party” are two of the most popular offerings.

Of course, kids being kids, such bargains rarely work out as promised. Unfortunately, these days it seems some adults will be kids, too: Both John Kerry and George W. Bush are shamelessly proffering the equivalent of the schoolyard bribe to parents, promising them billions of dollars and educational excellence in exchange for their votes.

Look at Mr. Bush: Touting the No Child Left Behind law, he declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, “No matter what your circumstance, no matter where you live, your school will be the path to [the] promise of America.”

He further proclaimed that to make it so, “we are providing a record level of funding.” So he is: Between 2000 and 2004, discretionary spending by the Department of Education grew from $35.6 billion to $55.7 billion, a 56 percent increase.

And his campaign Web site reveals he is offering more on top of what he has already spent: $250 million in annual funding to provide state reading and math assessments for grades three through 11; $200 million for states that develop “performance plans” for students starting high school; $269 million to provide professional development for high school math teachers; $1 billion in annual funding to make sure enough math, science and English instruction is offered in vocational schools; and so on.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kerry’s promises are even more grandiose. Having promoted an “education plan for a stronger America” in his convention speech, his Web site declares that if elected, he will add $10 billion a year on average to the already massive outlays of No Child Left Behind and will have the federal government float $24.8 billion in “school modernization bonds” to build and repair schools, among other promises.

All the money the candidates are offering, of course, is meant to be a proxy for academic success. Unfortunately, that massive federal spending will produce educational excellence is about as likely as an impulsive child making good on his bribe.

Let history be the guide. According to inflation-adjusted data from the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1965 and 2002, federal expenditures on education exploded from $25 billion to $108 billion, and inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending in America’s public schools tripled. Nonetheless, according to the Education Department’s No Child Left Behind: A Guide for Policymakers, since 1965, “test scores nationwide have stubbornly remained flat.”

Of course, Mr. Bush would respond that these results preceded the days of accountability, that NCLB ensures the money will be put to good use by making states set performance standards and by demanding those standards be met. Unfortunately, reality suggests that NCLB is actually inducing states to lower their standards.

Consider Michigan: It had relatively high standards prior to NCLB, but was lowered them in 2002 when 1,500 of its schools were identified as “needing improvement” under the federal law. The problem for Michigan was that it had high expectations for its schools compared with other states so that it had a relatively large number of schools identified as needing improvement. (Arkansas, whose students typically do much worse academically, had no schools on the list.)

And then there’s Washington state, for which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports, “The list of schools in the federal doghouse likely would be much longer had state officials not lowered the minimum scores students need to meet standards in math and reading.” So much for “accountability.”

Sadly, Mr. Kerry presents no options that are better than NCLB. Although he has endorsed minor reforms such as tying teacher pay to performance, Mr. Kerry’s plan is basically the same old schoolyard deal: Offer billions of dollars to “fully fund” our education system - even though we already spend more per student than any other industrialized country - and hope the votes come in.

Clearly, neither candidate is concerned that voters might have learned one of the earliest lessons taught in school: Bribes are often little more than empty promises. Let’s hope parents will loudly refuse to be bought.

Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst with the Cato Institute, is the author of A Lesson in Waste: Where Does All the Federal Education Money Go?