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Op-Ed - Education Pork Stalls Reform

Op-Ed

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Location: Washington, DC

By Senator Tom Coburn, M.D., published by The Washington Times on October 18, 2010

Congress can't stop throwing away your money

Across the country, America is waking up to the fact that our education system is broken and needs to change. I'm convinced the public understands, now more than ever, that virtually every effort to improve education from the federal government has failed miserably.

Since 1965, the federal government has invested more than $2 trillion in American education without improving outcomes. Per-pupil spending at the kindergarten-through-12th-grade level has more than doubled since 1970, yet outcomes have not improved. Since 1970, long-term scores in reading, math and science have remained flat. The pupil-to-teacher ratio has improved from 22.3 pupils per teacher in 1970 to 15.7 in 2005, yet scores haven't improved. Increased federal "investments" in higher education have caused college to become less affordable without improving graduation rates. The list goes on and on and on.

Meanwhile, policymakers in Washington haven't even begun to acknowledge the scope of the problem and especially the need for Congress to get out of the way so local communities and families can improve schools on their own. One major reason the federal government's role in education is being reconsidered everywhere but in Washington is because of earmarks - the special projects members often put into bills to promote themselves and reward donors and ideological allies. Rethinking education means giving up earmarks, something politicians in both parties have been loath to do.

A recent report I released, "Pork 101: How Education Earmarks School Taxpayers," chronicles Congress' perverse use of education earmarks. The report focuses on two federal programs that were intended to spur innovation of the American educational system but instead are used as slush funds for congressional pork projects. Those two programs are the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the Fund for the Improvement of Education (FIE). These two programs alone fund 97 percent of all education pork projects and amount to 5,563 earmarks, costing taxpayers nearly $2.3 billion.

Some examples of earmark "investments" highlighted in the report:

* Jackson State University in Mississippi received a nearly $500,000 FIPSE earmark to establish a school of osteopathic medicine despite having no intention of establishing the school.
* A $25,000 FIE earmark went to Clark County School District in Las Vegas for mariachi music.
* The U.S. Department of Education granted an extension of authority for an FIE-earmarked project despite the fact that funds were being embezzled by its earmark manager, who is serving 63 months in prison.
* $4.3 million has gone to support big labor through the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md.
* A $200,000 FIPSE earmark went to Central Washington University for "curriculum development" - aka wine studies.
* In fiscal 2010, elected officials in Port Townsend, Wash., funneled a half-million dollar FIE earmark to a private entity called "Look Both Ways" that develops Internet safety curriculum. Its cost was sufficient to prevent teacher layoffs in the school district where the private entity awarded the pork project was located. In fact, the earmark would have provided 65 percent of the district's funding shortfall.
* Politicians provided the University of Hawaii-West Oahu a $200,000 FIPSE earmark to produce "Primal Quest," a film documentary on some the most studied and photographed people in the world.

It's been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Congress' belief that we can spend our way to success through failed experiments like the U.S. Department of Education is an insane assumption that has been refuted by mountains of research. Yet Congress and the unions continue to offer more of the same. The American people are ready for real change in education. Breaking Congress' addiction to education earmarks will help clear a path to the kind of reform parents expect and our children deserve.


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