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Dear Congress: Can the Ties, Save the Children

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Washington is a place known more for style than substance. Therefore, it is important to take note when the style changes. Lately, we've seen a sharp increase in the number of politicians wearing "Save the Children" neckties. That's a sure sign that our kids are about to get chopped up once more in the political process. No sooner had the tags been taken off the ties than the new budget proposal passed the House in late May, calling for a reduction of some $68 billion (yes, that's billion with a B) going to education over the next seven years.

If that is not bad enough, these reductions have been cynically packaged by the majority party as a way of ensuring our children's future by reducing the federal deficit. Now, most of us understand the long-term problem created by the deficit. Certainly, we don't want to pass on that kind of problem to our children. However, we also must recognize that by demolishing the national role in education through these draconian reductions, we are creating a more serious problem: failing to address the inequities and basic need for investment in our children. That has been the historic federal role.

If you closely examine the byproducts of the work of Congress, it is not merely an attempt to make the tough budget-cutting decisions to ensure our children's future that supporters of the cuts claim. If they were making a truly honest attempt to share the burden of deficit reduction across the whole spectrum of government spending, I would still argue that the poorest and most vulnerable of our nation, our children, should be spared. But at least I could buy the claims of the politicians that they are trying to do a tough job fairly. What I find so outrageous is that, in fact, the children have been placed at the head of the line for punishment, and that the social policy being pursued by the Congress exacerbates and accelerates the recent trend of separating our nation into two parts: one poor, the other rich. It is neither enlightened nor fair.

Let's look at the school-lunch reductions as an example. There have been all sorts of arguments about whether the proposals were reductions in spending or in projected increases. (See Education Week, March 29, 1995.) The fact is, the way the formulas were devised, it all depends on where you live. There are 55 states and territories affected by the allocations. Only 10 would receive increased funding, by a total of $65.6 million. However, of the 45 that will lose funding, the 10 that will lose the most will lose more than a billion dollars over the next few years. But that doesn't begin to tell the story.

If you look at the 10 wealthiest states (and for the purposes of this analysis we will define "wealthy" as those states having the smallest percentage of students in poverty), you find that over the next five years those 10 states together will lose a total of $5 million in funding for the school-lunch program. It's a loss, but a modest one. However, the 10 poorest states (those with the greatest percentage of children in poverty) will lose $857 million over the next five years--a staggering amount for children who are already at risk because of family poverty.

Clearly, this Congress has shaped a social policy that reduces the deficit by rewarding the rich and punishing the poor.

If the story stopped there, it would be bad enough. But it doesn't stop there.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, the outspoken and acerbic critic of public educators who now heads the conservative organization Empower America, has devised a "Report Card on America's Schools" that shows some states do better than others at educating children, at least by his definition, which includes having relatively high Scholastic Assessment Test scores compared with per-pupil expenditures. His premise is that money doesn't matter, and that you can have good results without financial support.

Mr. Bennett's top 10 states share one common quality. They are states that are very modestly impacted by the grinding social factors that make educating children difficult. These "top 10" states tend to have small percentages of children in poverty, from single- and teen-parent families, and whose native language is not English. One would expect that since they have less need, these 10 states might not fare well when the federal budget is being reduced to curb the deficit. Not so. The 10 states that by Mr. Bennett's lights do the best at educating America's children will get $42.47 million more for their school-lunch programs over the next five years.

A similar analysis of the recent reading report card from the National Assessment of Educational Prog-ress is also instructive. The report pointed out that eight states showed solid progress while 10 other states declined. How did they do with lunch funding, since hungry children might not concentrate or read as well as their well-fed peers? The 10 states that showed declines in reading will average a $16 million loss per state over the next five years.

The eight states that improved will average $17 million in increases during the same period.

So the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Those who are doing well get the support, and those who are not doing so well get punished. Perhaps some feel this is appropriate; that a merit system is what America is about. But no one in Congress has suggested they meant to create a lunch-program formula that awards dollars based on academic success, though that is the result.

The future of our nation is at risk because of the gaping disunion between families that can provide for their children and those that cannot. If we fail to use the collective power of our country to address the needs of poor children, it will take more than a necktie to save them.

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