SOTU and Education Spending: Throwing Money at a Problem

President Obama’s State of the Union address reiterated a promise uttered since his Administration began:  that success would be rewarded, and failing programs would be cut from the federal budget.

Apparently, the promise does not apply when it comes to school choice.  Obama’s education goals advocate the right idea — that schools are in need of reform — but his plans to achieve those goals have made him into a man who talks out of both sides of his mouth.

The Head Start program is a perfect example.  The program sought to lay the groundwork for academic success by instilling parental involvement, particularly to low-income families.  But the Department of Health and Human Services reported in a study that Head Start children were no better off than their first-grader peers who were in no program at all.

The HHS report was released in 2008, just in time for the Obama Administration to trim the fat in the fiscal budget.  But the White House has merely renamed the program, “Early Childhood Education,” with a focus on the early learning atmosphere and to involve parents in their children’s development.  It is essentially the same as Head Start, but with an added bonus of $5 billion in “stimulus” funding for preschool.  What was that about rewarding success and cutting failure?

The president told us that he would “eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work.”  Perhaps he and his staff have not been paying attention to the last 50 years of federally-run schools, which have proven to be anything but effective — or fiscally sound.

Sadly, this is nothing new when it comes to so-called education “reform.”  President George W. Bush had his heart in the right place when he said that, “we need to eliminate the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  However, he did not lead the education system down a righteous path when No Child Left Behind was instituted in 2002.  NCLB expanded federal power and went too far in standardizing the ever-diversifying needs of young students.

Yet all speculation points to a renewal of NCLB in the 2010 federal budget to the tune of $4 billion.  Are American taxpayers willing to shell out this kind of dough so that their kids can become automatons of the standardized testing system?  The plan to hold teachers accountable and raise academic standards may appear to be well and good, but the bottom line is that parental engagement and student success begin in local communities — not the halls of Congress.

“We will only reward success,” said the astutely proud president, as his half of Congress stood and cheered.  The conservative members were no doubt wondering if the DC Opportunity Scholarship program was ringing any bells.  Largely popular among parents and found to be highly effective by the Department of Education, the five-year-old program has already provided millions of dollars to low-income students in the District so that they may attend private schools.

But words like “school choice” and “vouchers” tend to be bad words around a liberal Administration such as Obama’s, even though he and several of his colleagues would never venture to send their own children to DC’s failing public schools. 

The Heritage Foundation’s education expert, Dan Lips, points out the contradictory terms of Obama’s public education plan. 

“The DC Opportunity Scholarship program has proven to be one of the most effective federal education initiatives in history,” said Lips following the SOTU.  He added in a phone interview that that the rejection of the program is indefensible.  And that the expansion of federal power over education is — rightly put — dangerous.

Indeed, it is dangerous to continually throw money at a program that will do nothing more than hand power to the hands of out-of-touch bureaucrats.   And it is even far more dangerous to take away the ability of both parents and teachers to provide the best education possible.  

But that danger appears to be of no concern to the president.  Perhaps his definition of “success” and “failure” differ from those of taxpayers.