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It's the education, stupid

We Americans are often dumb and dumber. We’re dense, our minds clouded with thoughts of surviving on an island run by CBS, or sitting across from Regis giving the final answer, or smacking down some steroid-crazed imbecile courtesy of the World Wrestling Federation. Yes, many Americans who are about to enter the 21st century (it begins this Jan. 1) are a distracted lot, and we are perfect foils for power-seeking politicians.

Education is the big issue in the upcoming presidential election. Al Gore wants to add another 115 billion tax dollars to the 220 billion the feds have already pumped into the public schools in the past six years. Education Al believes that more programs and bureaucracy will raise student standardized test scores — scores that haven’t really moved on a national level in more than a decade. Ed Al doesn’t want any performance standards for the schools that receive the massive federal aid, and he doesn’t want competitive vouchers that would force individual public schools to compete with private schools in their neighborhoods. Al is just saying no to that. The vice president doesn’t want to anger the teacher’s unions or put too much pressure on anyone. He just wants to spend tax money.

George W. Bush does want to hold schools accountable, but just a little. And he supports government funded private school vouchers for poor parents if the public school their kids attend doesn’t improve after three years. He also wants to spend far less on education than Al Gore — but he’ll be spending plenty as well.

The problem is — federal spending on education doesn’t work in a vacuum. In 1962, when I was in the seventh grade, the average spending per student was $2,294. This year nearly seven thousand dollars per student will be spent. Federal spending on education has increased 88 percent in the past 10 years. Al Gore wants to double that percentage.

But still many American kids are dumb as stumps because public school discipline has eroded over the years and parental involvement in education has shrunk with so many parents working so many hours because high taxes have driven down their buying power. Of course one of the reasons we have high taxes is because of huge spending on education. Hey sonny, can you say “Catch-22”? Just say it — I know you haven’t read it.

Forgive me for being cynical, but this education issue is about as bogus as it gets. The Department of Education under President Clinton has been a disaster. According to congressional investigators, the DOE has improperly forgiven $73 million in education loans; has placed a half-billion tax dollars in the wrong treasury accounts and then disbursed the money without leaving an auditable paper trail; and issued $150 million in duplicate payments to contractors and grantees in 1999 alone.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the ultra-professional accounting firm of Ernst and Young told Congress it was impossible to audit the Department of Education because its records are such a mess.

Presiding over the chaos is President Clinton and his hand-picked Secretary of Education Richard Riley, the former governor of South Carolina. Riley was an interesting choice for Clinton because while he was running South Carolina that state was last in education. But cut Mr. Clinton some slack — while he was governor of Arkansas — that state ranked 49th in educational standards.

The point is that the federal government cannot fix what is wrong with America’s public schools no matter how much tax money it pours in. Tough standards and accountability have to be set locally. What the feds can do is issue block grants to the states to make sure that each school has a solid infrastructure and that salary levels for teachers and principals are competitive with other industries. But in doing this, the feds should demand minimum academic requirements be met. In other words, no more social promotions and no more disruptive behavior by repeat-offender students.

The brutal truth is that neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush has the expertise or the will to micromanage America’s public school system. There should be an education czar who would provide Congress with monthly reports on spending and efficiency. I used to teach high school and I know how much money is wasted and stolen by corrupt principals and school boards from coast to coast. Few watch these people and the tax money continues to pour in much to their delight.

So the next time you hear one of the candidates yelling about education, keep in mind that it’s all about image and not the kids. The lesson for all of us is that most political rhetoric is baloney and money cannot buy smarts. Hell, at this point I’d let the kids run the Department of Education — they couldn’t do any worse.