Both parties are aglow over the centerpiece of the budget agreement: a deal to hire more than 30,000 teachers in the coming year and increase the US Department of Education's budget by nearly 12 percent. But the enthusiasm of Washington's political elite seems to find little resonance in the rest of the nation. At a time of serious problems in American education, Washington's prolific spending will at best provide trickle-down benefits - and may even be harmful because it obscures the need for more fundamental reforms.
Just how troubled is America's K-12 public education system? By our own standards - as well as international ones - there is cause for concern, if not outright alarm. Public education needs a real reengineering.
A prominent international math and science test this past February, the TIMMS study, found that US students came in 19th out of 21 countries. Nearly a third of American students do not read at their grade level and SAT scores have been flat for years.
Will the addition of 30,000 teachers - as part of the president's proposal to hire a total of 100,000 teachers over the next seven years - change this situation? Probably not.
Thirty thousand new teachers represents an increase of 1.1 percent in the country's public school teaching force - which now numbers 2.7 million. Yet many highly qualified individuals continue to leave the teaching profession - or do not enter it - because of systemic flaws.
Union contracts in many districts reward teachers for years of service rather than merit. Thus, some of the best teachers in a school often make less money than the worst. It doesn't matter what subject is taught. It doesn't matter if a teacher comes in a mere 15 minutes before class starts or spends two extra hours each day working with students. In fact, it doesn't even matter how large the class size is.
Furthermore, the past four decades have seen a diversion in funds from teachers and an explosion in the number of non-teaching personnel at schools. Indeed, teachers today only account for 52 percent of employees in the public school system compared with 64 percent in 1959-60. Since that time, the public education system has hired four non-teachers for every three new teachers.
WHAT should Congress do to help improve the quality of elementary and secondary education in America?
While local school districts enter into contacts with the teachers' unions, the latter party has massive resources - from both a personnel and financial standpoint - to secure these monolithic agreements. The two unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have combined annual revenues of more than $1.2 billion. Congress should hold sunshine hearings about the power and resources of the unions and gauge their commitment to having high quality teachers in the classroom via contracts that have pay differentials based on performance, not merely time on the job.
Next year, Congress also must begin work on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This program provides more than $12 billion to school systems, much of it for programs of doubtful value.
The largest ESEA program, Title I, has spent more than $100 billion since its inception in 1965 to help disadvantaged elementary school children. Yet, it has consistently been found deficient in achieving results. A major US Department of Education report released in February 1993 noted, "The program today does not appear to be helping to close the learning gap." Title I is slated to receive more than $8.3 billion in fiscal year 1999.
There is a plethora of more than five dozen other programs under this act, which includes professional development assistance to teachers, funds to help schools implement technology, and even assistance for native Hawaiians. As states and local communities have been at the forefront of education innovation, it would be better to block-grant these funds to them, rather than having the federal government continue to micromanage such expenditures.
States should be permitted to use funds to expand school choice opportunities - such as charter schools and low-income scholarships (vouchers). These provide an immediate and direct way for children to receive a better education - and place pressure on public schools to improve.
The creation of more than 1,000 charter schools since 1991 is one of the most exciting developments in education today. Charter schools are public schools that are exempted from most education rules and regulations so that flexible approaches can lead to education excellence. If a school fails to live up to the mission of its charter, the charter is revoked and the school closed.
The explosive growth of charter schools is a testament to the energy, determination, and innovation of teachers, parents, and education leaders throughout the country. It also raises a fundamental question: If these educational entrepreneurs have been willing to put their jobs on the line and take other bold actions to change the quality of schools, shouldn't policymakers in Washington be expected to do the same?
* Paul Steidler is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy organization in Arlington, Va. He testified to Congress this year about proposals to hire new teachers.