Federal Opinion

Investment Without Invective

By Richard W. Riley — July 11, 2001 8 min read
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With the U.S. Senate’s passage of its bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we are moving another step closer to fulfilling the promise of high standards for all children. Seven years ago, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act gave states the critical support they needed to start putting standards into place. The 1994 reauthorization of ESEA focused Title I on helping low-income students meet these same standards and held schools accountable for results. And it began to direct federal investments in schools to building a real capacity to improve teaching and learning—a focus on quality teaching, extra help for low-performing schools, smaller classes, after-school and summer-school programs, and access to 21st-century technology.

Five years ago, we set new national goals, including one goal that all children should be able to read by the end of the 3rd grade. Most important, a new American consensus has developed around three fundamental and linked principles: high standards for all children, real and fair measures of accountability, and new, thoughtful investments to help put these reforms permanently in place.

Congressional negotiators now must sort out the differences between the Senate and House versions of the ESEA before sending it on to the president for his signature. I am disappointed that Congress did not keep its promise to reduce class sizes and chose to ignore the continuing need of many states regarding school construction. Nevertheless, Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress deserve praise for supporting many sensible reform measures, while rejecting private school vouchers.

The country is at a critical juncture in its effort to raise standards. The growing public reaction against testing is fueled by excessive testing, testing that is not aligned to curriculum, and the increasing pressure on teachers to “teach to the test” at the expense of real learning. If states are to avoid a further backlash, they need to streamline the tests that already exist and be serious about measuring their own progress by adopting the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a single benchmark of excellence, as suggested by the Senate. The public supports testing as long as it is linked to turning around failing schools and provides real and immediate help to the individual students who are struggling academically.

President Bush and Congress have placed a strong focus on increased support for preschool and making sure that all children are able to read by the end of the 3rd grade, if not earlier. I strongly support this policy. However, there are hundreds of thousands of older students in our schools today who simply cannot read at grade level. If we are serious as a nation about “leaving no child behind,” these older students cannot be overlooked or forgotten as they seek to meet new, high standards.

This is why Congress and the president must go the next step and back up these proposed reforms with real investments, including doubling support for Title I. Make no mistake about it—a policy of high standards and increased accountability without increased investments will almost certainly create a public backlash against the president’s reforms and do lasting damage to the standards movement.

Just imagine the backlash when state and local leaders realize that all these new reforms and demands for more testing come without adequate resources and amount to just another unmet promise from the federal government. The failure of the federal government to fully fund its share of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is one broken promise that does not need to be repeated. Washington needs to fulfill its promise to fund its share of the IDEA and make a serious investment that gives real credibility to many reforms proposed in the new ESEA.

The president’s proposal to spend $26.4 billion to support elementary and secondary education and fund the IDEA amounts to only a $1.6 billion increase. This simply is inadequate. The House proposal to spend $30.3 billion for the ESEA and the IDEA, an increase of $5 billion, also does not go far enough. The Senate proposes to spend $41.3 billion to cover the cost of the ESEA and the IDEA, an increase of $16.5 billion, and that is not out of line with the enormous task at hand.

Already, thousands of students are struggling to pass new and more rigorous high school exit exams, and tens of thousands of students are already being held back each year. Summer schools once again are filling up, and there are more than a few young people in high schools who have the reading skills of 5th graders. Unless we provide these young people with intensive help in school, after school, and in the summer, many of them will give up and drop out. The last thing we need to be telling concerned parents is that help is on the way, but not in time to make a difference in their child’s life.

Finally, in this new era of bipartisan support for education, the White House needs to send a message to its conservative allies to stop making the U.S. Department of Education a target of their invective. For almost its entire history, this small department has been under siege and partisan attack. Conservative ideologues spent over a decade seeking to abolish the Department of Education, only to have their position roundly rejected by the American public.

Having failed to achieve abolition of the department, these same conservative ideologues in Congress and in the media now seek to undermine the integrity of the department by questioning its financial management. Those attacks persist today and get wilder by the minute, even when a Republican president and his choice for secretary are at the helm.

The truth of the matter is that the department has been struggling to recover from years of neglect and persistent efforts to eliminate it in the 1980s. When I became secretary in January 1993, the Education Department was in terrible shape. Three months after I arrived, the General Accounting Office released a report indicating that the department had one of the worst management systems in the federal government.

It was easy to see why this was the case. The department had been starved of resources and targeted for elimination. As a result, the federal student financial-aid system was in crisis. The student-loan default rate had soared to 22.4 percent. There was a $2 billion deficit in the Pell Grant accounts for low-income college students. Sham trade schools were being set up by fly-by-night operators who were intent on bilking the federal government and ignoring their students.

My immediate Republican predecessor, Lamar Alexander, and his able deputy, David Kearns, began the process of rebuilding the department. We worked hard during my tenure as secretary to improve its management as well. We wiped out the $2 billion deficit in the Pell accounts, saved taxpayers $18 billion over the course of eight years by reducing the student-loan default rate, increasing collections, and implementing a direct- student-loan program. In addition, we were able to lower the cost of student loans, saving students and their families $9 billion.

Over the years, we removed more than 1,100 high-default schools from the federal student-aid system. We lowered the student-loan default rate from 22.4 percent to 6.9 percent. We increased efforts to collect student loans by offsetting tax refunds, wage garnishment, and lawsuits. Our direct-student-loan program revolutionized the delivery of student aid and produced budgetary savings. We made it easier for students to manage their college debt and repay their loans.

The most persistent charge now being made by conservative partisans is that $450 million was “misspent” by the department during my tenure and somehow lost to taxpayers. The largest part of this money was in the form of duplicate payments from one trust account to another. This total of $250 million was quickly returned to the department when we discovered the problem. As Secretary of Education Rod Paige noted in his May 22, 2001, letter to certain members of Congress, this "$250 million is not missing” and “the department recovered this entire amount and no financial loss occurred to the taxpayer.”

Secretary Paige makes an additional point in the same letter that none of the remaining $200 million in question “represents losses due to financial mismanagement by the department. Rather, these amounts reflect wrongdoing by recipients of department funds, failure to adhere to contract or grant terms, or lack of documentation by the recipients.” The identification and pursuit by the department of these misused funds shows that department systems are working to protect the taxpayer.

Secretary Paige will soon have his hands full implementing the many reforms passed by Congress. The last thing he needs to be doing is spending his time answering wild and unfounded charges that billions of dollars have been lost. We left the department in much better shape than we found it. Years of effort, for example, to put in place a new integrated financial-management system will, in all likelihood, allow the department to obtain a clean audit once more, as it did in 1997.

It has taken close to 10 years, spanning the administrations of former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, to get the Department of Education back on its feet. Secretary Paige has my full support to continue that effort, and I stand ready to help him in any way.

The American people have every right to have their tax dollars protected, and Congress has every right to hold Cabinet heads accountable for their departments. But the department should be allowed to get on with its business of supporting local and state efforts to improve education. The department is full of dedicated and skilled civil servants who are doing their patriotic duty and serving this nation. They deserve our respect and a helping hand, rather than another partisan scolding.

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Investment Without Invective


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