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Let's Grade School Aid

March 12, 2000

Congress should start demanding that states show results for the billions of federal education dollars spent every year on high-poverty schools. Such schools need and deserve extra assistance, but states must focus the special funds on expert teaching and proven academic programs. School districts must then demonstrate that poor children are making measurable, lasting gains.

The funds flow from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was intended to close the achievement gap between poor, low-achieving students and more affluent children. Despite the $185 billion spent on this effort since 1965 when Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, the goal is as elusive as ever. The chasm has narrowed slightly at best for disadvantaged elementary school children, and even those results haven't lasted until junior high.

The law that provides federal aid to schools is up for reauthorization in Congress, and the debate is running hard along partisan lines. Both sides should listen to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican who sounds like a Democrat when he calls for more, not less, federal spending on the schools. But the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, like a growing chorus of Title I critics, also wants the states to prove they're spending the money on efforts that produce measurable improvements in learning.

Bush has some authority, because Texas holds school districts accountable, with enviable results. Overall student achievement is up impressively. Test scores of black and Latino students are rising significantly. The achievement gap between poor and wealthier students is closing.

The House bill most closely mirrors this philosophy. It would explicitly require schools that receive Title I funds to show that all children are making significant and measurable progress. Annual school report cards would show trends in school performance, student achievement and teacher quality. Parents also would be notified when their children were taught by uncertified teachers, a chronic problem in high-poverty schools. The bill, which passed the House in November, also would set a deadline: All children--regardless of race, income level or language status--must reach grade level in 10 years. That long timetable won't sit well with parents who want their children to excel right now. But it is better than the current tolerance of unending failure. The proposed federal law also would not preclude states from setting far more desirable, more aggressive deadlines for children to reach grade level.

The Senate bill, which was reported out of committee Thursday, would give states greater freedom without adequate penalties for continued failure. When it reaches the Senate floor, the bill should be amended to require much more of states and governors.

Title I represents the largest investment Washington makes in public education. It is popular politically because of the $8 billion a year it pumps via state and local grants into high-poverty schools. At least 90% of that money is spent on instruction and support, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Education. About half of that amount is wasted on unskilled though well-meaning teacher aides, who are often more baby-sitter than instructor.

Federal education dollars ought to do more toward equalizing instruction for poor students, who usually get the worst schools, the worst teachers and the worst principals. As the Texas experience proves, children can do better when money is spent on strong principals, effective teachers and proven programs.

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