Democrats lament that the presumptive war with Iraq has kept them from focusing the public's attention on domestic issues.
OK, let's talk about one of their favorite domestic issues: education. Most Democratic candidates (and sometimes a few Republicans) promise that if elected, or re-elected, they will fight to spend more money for education. They imply a relationship between increased spending and better academic performance. The public has mostly accepted this line of thinking.
The federal government has spent $321 billion on education since 1965. The worthless Department of Education (DOE), which was established in 1979 as President Jimmy Carter's payoff to the teachers' unions, has an annual budget of $55 billion. Yet on the DOE's own Web page there are some embarrassing facts. Promoting its "No Child Left Behind" agenda (www.nochildleftbehind.gov/next/stats/index.html), DOE notes that education spending has increased 132 percent between 1996 and the current fiscal year. As the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste notes, that compares to a 96 percent budget hike for the Department of Health and Human Services and a 48 percent boost for defense over the same period.
What are our children and their parents getting for this extra money? Not much. The DOE reports just 32 percent of public school fourth-graders are proficient in math. Of those who can't read well, 68 percent are minority children, even though sharp increases in Title I spending ($10 billion in the current budget) directed at improving basic skills among black, Hispanic and American Indian children has failed to achieve those goals.
If the federal government's own figures are not persuasive enough, a new study by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are. In the ninth edition of "Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis," the study of two generations of students from 1976 to 2001 graded each state, using more than 100 measures of educational resources and achievement. ALEC is the nation's largest bipartisan, individual membership organization of state legislators.
In a news release, the ALEC says, "A key finding of the report shows there is no immediate evident correlation between conventional measures of education inputs, such as expenditures per pupil and teacher salaries, and educational outputs, such as average scores on standardized tests."
Particularly troubling is the finding that of the 10 states that increased per-pupil expenditures the most over the past two decades, none ranked in the top 10 in academic achievement. Additionally, of the top 10 that experienced the greatest decreases in pupil-to-teacher ratios over the past two decades, none ranked in the top 10 in academic achievement.
The teachers' unions and the rest of the government education monopoly regularly tell us that more spending and smaller classrooms are the answer to improved test scores. But the ALEC study, along with the DOE statistics, proves that is not the case. (For a state-by-state breakdown go to www.ALEC.org.)
Allowing parents to have the power to choose where they believe their children can best be educated is the way to get higher test scores and better learning. If competition improves the products we buy, it can improve the quality of education our children receive or, in this case, are not receiving. How much more money will it take before the public awakens to the unnecessary and ineffective education spending?
That would be one good question for the campaign trail in any debate about domestic issues.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.