Campaign 2000: What the Candidates Should Be Talking About

March 22, 2000

Education has emerged as one of the major issues in the 2000 presidential campaign. Surely many educators are gratified to see so much attention paid to their work, but there are dangers, too, as candidates compete to offer expansive new programs that may appeal to voters.

In recent years, both political parties have supported programs dramatically extending the federal reach into schools. Placing more technology in classrooms, establishing school disciplinary codes, deciding how reading will be taught, recruiting new teachers and determining their qualifications, selecting exemplary math textbooks—these are just a few areas that were once the sole responsibility of state and local school officials but are now viewed as the proper subject of federal action.

This concentration of power has not been accompanied by the federal government’s assuming greater responsibility for the costs of public schools. State and local governments furnish 93 percent of the revenue for elementary and secondary education. The expansion of the federal role is also occurring in the absence of compelling evidence that existing federal educational programs have accomplished their goals. Indeed, most evaluations suggest that the major federal programs are failing to make a significant dent in the problems they were designed to solve.

Here is a suggestion for the candidates: Fix existing federal education programs before telling school boards, principals, teachers, and parents how to run local schools. There is no reason to believe that Congress is well-suited to decide who should teach, what should be taught, or how schools should be organized. Nor do we know of any evidence that the U.S. Department of Education is in a better position to direct local schools than the people who work in them and send their children to learn there. And, frankly, taking on vast new responsibilities before fulfilling existing obligations is indefensible for any government at any level.

The two most important federal categorical programs—special education and Title I—need to be overhauled. Both could be changed by the president and Congress in ways that would help the children who are their intended beneficiaries.

Special Education. The 1975 legislation giving birth to special education declared Congress’ intention to eventually fund 40 percent of the costs of special education services beyond the regular school program. But the federal government has never come close to this amount, currently spending about $5.2 billion, approximately $12 billion short of the 40 percent that was promised. The shortfall must be covered out of regular state and local education revenues.

Special education costs are likely to escalate even more in the future. The legal rights supporting special education continue to multiply, mainly through court rulings. To cite one example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act exempts medical care from the services school districts are obligated to provide handicapped students. But it does mandate that districts provide “related services” needed for handicapped students to attend and to benefit from school. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court blurred the line between medical care and these “related services.” The case involved a 16-year-old student who is paralyzed from the waist down and requires constant, one-on-one nursing care. The local school district refused to cover this expense, claiming it was medical treatment as defined by the IDEA. The district did pay for a full-time educational aide for the boy. The court ruled that the health aide fell under the category of “related services” and ordered the district to pay for the nurse.

The tendency to place slow learners into special education also drives special education costs skyward. A little more than half of all special education students are classified LD, or learning-disabled. This category of disability includes students with legitimate learning problems, but it also serves as a catch-all for youths struggling in regular education programs. Alice Parker, California’s director of special education, estimates that as many as 250,000 of the state’s special education students are designated as learning-disabled because of reading difficulties stemming from poor instruction. Despite these burgeoning numbers, whether children benefit from special education is unknown. A 1999 study found no significant achievement differences between learning-disabled children who were placed in special education and similar learning-disabled children remaining in regular education programs. And according to statistics from the department of education, only 4 percent of students diagnosed with learning disabilities in 1994 returned to regular classrooms.

Title I. Over $100 billion has been spent on Title I since its inception in 1965. Although there has been some progress for poor children during this period, it is difficult to attribute it to Title I funding. For one thing, Title I is a funding stream, not a program with a specific educational strategy. Districts and schools use the Title I funding in a variety of ways, and it is commingled with state and local programs and funds.

Unfortunately, little has been learned over these past 35 years about the conditions under which poor children make the most progress. Research has been inconsistent, sporadic, and unable to identify the most effective classroom strategies. Studies of instructional strategies have not utilized the most rigorous scientific methods—the random assignment of students to treatment and control groups, for example. Notwithstanding the limitations of this research, two discouraging findings about the Title I program stand out.

On achievement tests, poor children who do not receive Title I services score about the same as similar children who are in the program. Also troubling, a significant portion of Title I funding is spent before it reaches the classroom. In 1993, Paul T. Hill discovered that federal programs supplied 41 percent of operating revenues for state agencies, leading to what he called the “colonization” of state departments of education. Speaking of state education departments, Mr. Hill concluded, “Many have no real agenda beyond keeping federal funds flowing.”

The formula that dictates where Title I funds are allocated has presented serious problems. In the 1990s, Congress recognized that Title I monies were going to most districts in the country, including a large number in well-off areas, instead of being targeted to the poorest schools. Efforts to concentrate Title I funding have produced perverse effects, however. In many urban districts, a public school must be at least 60 percent poor to qualify for Title I aid. Thus, if a poor student’s family moves to a slightly better neighborhood, and the student enrolls in the local public school where “only” half the children are poor, it will not be a Title I school, and the student receives no federal aid at all. The only way to get Title I aid, then, is to remain enrolled in a school where most other students are very poor.

This approach contrasts with federal funding of higher education, where federal dollars follow the student, even if the student chooses to attend a private university. If higher education aid were structured like Title I, federal funding would flow only to universities where most students were impoverished, and there would be no grants for students who were trying to attend better, more integrated universities. Under present law, Title I dollars reward concentrated economic segregation.

This approach contrasts with federal funding of higher education, where federal dollars follow the student, even if the student chooses to attend a private university. If higher education aid were structured like Title I, federal funding would flow only to universities where most students were impoverished, and there would be no grants for students who were trying to attend better, more integrated universities. Under present law, Title I dollars reward concentrated economic segregation.

In 1965, the federal government promised poor children that it would help them receive a quality education in American schools. In 1975, a similar commitment was made to handicapped youngsters. But neither promise has been kept. As Campaign 2000 heats up, we suggest the following principles to guide candidates who want to improve the role of the federal government in education.

First, fix existing federal programs. Make sure that programs like Title I and special education provide real education benefits for the children they serve. This will require methodologically sound evaluations to determine what is working and what is wasting taxpayer money.

Second, bring mandates in line with the revenues required to meet them. In special education, this means either cutting back on the IDEA mandate or boosting spending to fulfill its requirements. Imagine what would happen if the federal government were to assume the full costs for special education (and enact reasonable controls so that districts and states avoid overlabeling to get federal dollars). Districts would be free to use $37 billion of their own money to reduce class size, to hire new teachers, to train staff members, to add technology, or to do whatever was most needed in their own schools. Providing the promised 40 percent would provide $12 billion, still a substantial sum.

Third, get federal education money to schools in the most direct route possible. Federal initiatives are designed to help students, not to pump up bureaucracies.

Fourth, resist the temptation to regulate curriculum materials, classroom instruction, the training and hiring of teachers, school staffing patterns, school disciplinary codes, and the myriad other decisions about schooling that can best be made by local decisionmakers.

These are four simple principles. But they form a powerful idea. Policymakers have clung to the belief that the federal government can tinker with schools—add programs, enact mandates, pile on regulations—and somehow education will improve. But there is no evidence that this works. The new administration and the new Congress now have a historic opportunity to carve out a new federal role, one that—by fixing federal programs so they work as they were intended—unleashes the energies of local schools in behalf of the children they serve.