No Such Thing as a Free Federal Program : Education: California schools are failing because of teaching fads and bureaucratic mandates.

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of the Report Card, an education watchdog publication of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture

Rarely has the press been so eager or so absurd as with its recent campaign urging Gov. Pete Wilson to grab $42 million in Goals 2000 funds, the latest federal program promising to create new and improved students for the 21st century.

To hear the media tell it, Goals 2000 is like the lottery: a real once in a lifetime opportunity. Better still, it's a sure thing. "The dough could wind up in some state that's smarter or quicker," an editorial in this newspaper warned ominously. "All this hesitating doesn't make sense."

We've heard this before. It's a silly and lurid argument, a step removed from the impatient adolescent coaxing his reluctant date into the back seat. It stems from the misguided belief that federal money is free. "Take the money because it's there, governor," the establishment whispers. "Everybody's doing it."

Not so fast.

California does not need the money. More important, it does not need the additional mandates, the new federal regulatory boards or the preposterous one-size-fits-all national standards. Contrary to popular opinion, there are strings attached in the form of federal mandates that are more trouble than a quick $42 million is worth.

Education Secretary Richard Riley insists that Goals 2000 has "zero regulations." Those nonregulations include a number of poorly disguised mandates, including a federal review and approval process for state goals, and the controversial national standards. All of these are voluntary only if a state refuses the money.

It's an offer a governor could easily refuse. In fact, the governors of Arkansas, New Hampshire, Montana and Virginia already have. At issue here is federalism. Turning down the Goals 2000 money, Virginia Gov. George Allen said, was "a small price to pay to safeguard the principle of local control of public education and to preserve our ability to chart our own course for education reform." Arkansas Gov. Fob James returned $1.4 million of Goals 2000 grants his state received in 1994, calling the program a "new and unprecedented level of potential federal intrusion" into state and local control.

The real question is, if there really are no strings attached to Goals 2000, why are we sending the money (our taxes) to Washington in the first place? Why are we running our money through this federal sieve, just so the government can give it back to us again to use for our local schools?

The governors' rejection of these federal funds represents a departure from the long-standing practice of states squirming frantically at the government teat. In recent years, Wilson buoyed his political career with criticisms against onerous federal mandates on how states may handle illegal aliens. Isn't it strange that as the federal government fails in its duty to police the border, it is nevertheless ready to assume new responsibilities in education? Turning down the Goals 2000 money would send a powerful message to the federal government that California neither needs nor wants its help.

It wasn't so long ago that education was the province of the states. When Congress created the Department of Education in 1979, lawmakers were clear that the new department would have no real policymaking authority over the states. But the federal role in education has expanded ever since. The federal education budget has more than doubled in size in 16 years, from $14.2 billion in 1979 to $32.9 billion in 1995. Goals 2000 is only the latest and most subtly intrusive national legislation to be foisted on the states.

Other Republican governors, it is true, have not shared Wilson's skepticism, and the press has seized upon this. After all, if a local control advocate like Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson can take the Goals 2000 money, why not Wilson? But would the media encourage Wilson to follow these other states so enthusiastically if those governors pushed for stricter welfare reform? Less stringent gun laws? Or a tax cut? How about private school choice? The mind boggles.

Truth be told, the $42 million is a pittance. Distributed evenly among the state's 5.2 million students in 1,100 school districts, the share amounts to $8.09 per student, assuming the state education bureaucracy doesn't sop it up before it reaches the classroom. California spends about $4,400 per pupil already--a lot of money despite what administrators and the teachers' unions say. Over two decades, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending grew 56%. Simply saying schools are fiscally strapped does not explain stagnant test scores, faltering standards and a generation of disaffected youth.

Students in the Golden State will continue to rank at or near the bottom of the nation in math and reading as long as reform hinges on money. California's schools aren't starving. They're choking to death on educational fads and bureaucratic mandates. This will not change until local communities, parents and the press get on the schools' case and make sure that the money spent now is spent better.

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