Bennett Questions Value of Drug Education

February 14, 1990 3 min read

Washington--On Feb. 2, William J. Bennett, the nation’s drug-policy director, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the first of a series of Congressional hearings scheduled to examine President Bush’s anti-drug strategy.

In response to questions from committee members, the former Secretary of Education questioned the effectiveness of drug-education programs and argued that children were more likely to respond to “tough” law-enforcement policies.

Following are excerpts from testimony from the committee hearing:

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Judiciary Committee: The comprehensive drug education available in our schools under President Bush’s 1991 drug proposal ... is about a 10 percent increase over current funding. The proposal that I have put forward is an increase that would bring it from 40 percent of the children being exposed to drug education to 100 percent of the children. ...

What are the reasons why there isn’t much more emphasis on drug education, K through 12?

William J. Bennett: This may engage a debate. I have very strong feelings on this, and I do because I believe I know something about it. Education’s still my first love. ... And we spent a lot of time on this issue at the Department of Education, and I spent a fair amount of time on it here. Drug-education spending is up since 1989. ... It’s up significantly. We believe in it. We believe it makes a difference. We believe that almost every school in the country now has some kind of drug-education program. ...

[But] we regard education programs as a helpful auxiliary. I do not agree with Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy’s statement that you can inoculate children against drug abuse by education. I think that that statement is refuted every day of the week. If there were a seminar or course which could inoculate, we would have put it in long ago and would have seen this effect.

You have drug-education programs in schools all over this country where drug use is rampant. The Wall Street Journal did a long story last fall on a school in Bainbridge, Wash., which has model drug curricula. They spend tons of money on it. It gets awards for its drug programs. And 70 percent of the kids use illegal drugs and alcohol on the weekend, and they laugh at the program.

You know what the problem is there? They don’t have any enforcement. They don’t have any policy. They are talking a good game.

Now, if you ask me, what should we do? Should we have drug-education programs, or should we have tough policy? And if I have the choice of only one, I will take policy every time because I know children. And you might say this is not a very utopian view of children, not a very romantic view of children, not a very rosy view of children, and I would say, “you’re right.” I know children.

And I think most human beings would agree with me, probably not most professional educators. Kids will stop, not only if they have been given the reasons, but if they have some palpable reasons in front of them that something will happen if they take drugs.

If ignorance is the problem, knowledge is the cure. I don’t believe that for a large number of kids out there who use drugs, that ignorance is the problem. I think there are other problems. ...

Education conceived broadly enough, I think there’s nothing more important. And a lot of drug education that I have seen and read about, the problem isn’t that it doesn’t have enough money. It doesn’t have enough punch. It doesn’t have enough bite to it. It’s antiseptic. It’s sterile. It’s inert. It’s overhead projectors showing, here’s what marijuana looks like, here’s what cocaine looks like, and you could get hurt or you could die. ...

I remember a couple schools when I was growing up that had alcohol-education programs. ... [They] took kids down to the hospitals and showed them what it was like when you were in an automobile accident and held up a liver of an alcoholic.

That’s the kind of education program we need, not some nicely well-scrubbed, just recently rehabilitated person standing up, saying, “Gee, I did cocaine and almost lost it, but now I’m back and looking pretty terrific.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as Bennett Questions Value of Drug Education