Inner-city schools need a political Hurricane Katrina

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently, “Our K-12 agenda can be summed up in one word: reform.”

Would that it were true.

But what Duncan calls reform is indeed putting lipstick on a pig. In this case, the pig is Washington, D.C.’s never-changing formula for solving everything: spending ever-increasing sums of taxpayer money.

“Reform” means generating new ideas about how to spend and coming up with clever new titles for programs.

So today it’s called “Race to the Top.” Duncan has been handed $4.35 billion, taken out of last year’s $830 billion stimulus bill, and given personal discretion for dispensing it to states that propose education reform ideas that strike his fancy. It’s the largest discretionary sum ever given to an education secretary.

This past week, 40 states submitted proposals. How do we know that Duncan can identify good ideas? We don’t.

He says he likes charter schools and performance pay for teachers. He’s open to new colors of lipstick that the pig has not sported before. But a pig is still a pig.

There appears to be not a shred of evidence that funneling more taxpayer dollars through Washington, D.C., to states improves education. Data compiled by Heritage Foundation analysts shows that since 1970, federal spending per student, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled with no discernible change in test scores.

Now, a new study released by the Department of Health and Human Services shows that the Head Start program — the federal program started in 1965 and aimed at getting preschool low-income children prepared for school — has no impact.

Some $166 billion of federal funds has been poured into Head Start. Yet, this new study shows that first-graders who have been through the program perform essentially the same as those who haven’t.

In response to Texas Gov. Rick Perry saying “no thanks” to new money with stipulations from Washington, D.C., bureaucrats, Duncan said, “If states are half-hearted, that’s probably not a place where we’ll invest.”

It says it all that Duncan calls a long and unblemished history of shoveling taxpayer funds into a black hole “investing.” Can you imagine any investment banker or venture capitalist “investing” in anything with this kind of track record? Chances are zero. 

So why must we tolerate it?

If there was evidence that billions directed into new spending was going to improve education, we taxpayers might be prepared to be put on the hook. But not only is there not, the real problems we do have that the charade pretends to address just get worse.

It’s black and Hispanic kids who languish year after year in failing public schools as the game goes on.

In normal markets, customers drive the quality of the product. In the case of the public education monopoly, the customers — kids and their parents — are pawns in the game. Anything that would give the customers power — such as school choice — government and union bureaucrats fight.

President Barack Obama’s administration, with all its lofty rhetoric about reform, quietly has allowed congressional Democrats to kill the successful Washington, D.C., voucher program. The program has demonstrably given 1,300 inner-city kids a better education in private schools at a third of the cost than counterparts are getting in D.C. public schools.

Even the liberal Washington Post has editorialized to save the program, as Obama and Duncan turn deaf ears.

Duncan was chastised for saying the “best thing” to happen to education in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. But education has markedly improved there as parents were given school choice in the wake of the disaster.

The best thing that could happen to inner-city education nationwide would be a political Katrina that would give birth to parental empowerment and school choice.

Examiner columnist Star Parker is an author and president of the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education (www.urbancure.org). She is syndicated nationally by Scripps Howard News Service.

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