Bush's Education Plan

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Republicans are cheering Bush’s education bill, but they should ask themselves this critical question: why is Teddy Kennedy smiling?

What American education needs is not another federal reform bill. We need a revolution to end what has been called the "twelve-year sentence," also known as public school. In this system, everyone is taxed whether or not he has kids, and parents are enticed to take advantage of the free service by surrendering their children to the government to teach and raise.

At government school, kids are subjected to relentless political propaganda, develop the habit of deferring to government authority, and are alienated from the adult world. What is taught and how are the subjects of endless political controversy and social division, and the kids get stuck in the middle. Some schools are worse than others, but all of them are worse than they would be if they were private.

That said, is Bush’s bill a good one? We can’t rule out the possibility that a federal bill could take a step in the right direction. It could curb union control of the teacher’s profession. It could stop mandating what is taught and how, giving more authority to local school districts. It could end menacing court supervision of the racial makeup of schools. It could curb the power of the unconstitutional Department of Education, or, better yet, abolish it.

Alas, Bush’s bill does none of that, which explains why Teddy likes it. As the New York Times sums it up: "President Bush proposed a significant increase today in the federal role in public education." What else do you need to know?

Think of this: for the first time in the history of the United States, the federal government will impose a national test to determine what kids learn. The test is called the National Assessment of Education Progress. For now, it is a means to measure overall scores within schools, not individual students. In effect, Bush is taking what he did as governor in Texas and applying it to the country.

This is one of the hazards of having a governor as president. He once demanded federalism (freedom from central control) in order to be able to govern, but as president, he forgets about federalism once the central power is in his hands. We are told this is necessary to provide accountability and flexibility. Nonsense. When have the feds ever provided either? This bill means conformism and regimentation.

Listen to the language: we are told that this bill will seek out "failing schools." What does that mean? That the bricks are disintegrating? If students aren’t performing well, why not admit that we are dealing with failing students and failing teachers? Already, a lack of personal responsibility is built into this approach.

Schools in Texas dealt with this by reformulating their teaching methods. Now, teachers teach the test. They drill and they drill until 90 percent of the kids can pass it. The weakest among the students dictate the pace and method. It is a dreary and unimaginative approach, which guts the collective experience of hundreds of years of teaching. But if your goal is to boost overall scores, no question: this is the way to do it.

What happens to superior students? They are shuffled off to supposedly advanced classes to mark time learning about the environment and such until the next school year rolls around, and they can move on to the next level. In short, this plan limits the performance of good students in the name of ballooning the scores of the worst students.

Bush’s approach is supposed to be conservative and Republican because it introduces the idea of vouchers. If the "schools fail" again and again, the students are permitted to take the equivalent of the federal subsidy and use it at private schools.

Stop right here and think about this: the federal government will be giving direct aid to private schools via individual students. This is the policy nightmare that conservatives before about 1985 had warned about for generations. And yet here it is, coming to fruition under a Republican president. To Republican cheers!

There are legions of policy experts on the Right who will tell you that Bush’s idea is the educational equivalent of the Second Coming. But they are wrong, dead wrong. Federal aid to private schools is a disaster. The budget will grow and grow, and evil bureaucrats in the federal government will have their fingers in the affairs of private schools, overriding state laws and the independence that parents demand of these schools. It short, it spells catastrophe, if not with this president, certainly with the next Democrat who comes to power.

The Bush people refuse to say how much this big-spending, big-government proposal will cost, always a bad sign. But it will certainly be in the billions.

The only saving grace is the education savings plan that would permit parents to spend up to $5,000 per year for tuition and not pay taxes on the money. No word yet on whether that would apply to homeschoolers and whether the school chosen by the parents would have to be federally certified in some way.

And one wonders what kinds of strings will later be attached to the use of this money. What kinds of information will the IRS demand to permit you to use this provision? Homeschoolers in particular will be very wary of using these accounts if protections for their independence are not guaranteed.

Any lover of freedom must favor any measure that permits parents to keep more of their own money. But such deductions also raise the danger that the tax system is being used for social planning. Why not just increase personal deductions and be done with it? That way parents can spend the money on whatever they want.

Can someone who is close to this guy remind him of the main lesson of political history: in the long run, government power is never constructive, but destructive of all that is decent and good.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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