The Wall Street Journal

January 9, 2003


Money and Class

Mother was right: Money can't buy class. That's class as in a proper education. And it's reason enough to lament President Bush's celebration yesterday of the first anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Bush used the occasion to boast that federal funding for elementary and secondary schools is up 49% over the past two years. Yet even that increase isn't enough for Mr. Bush's partner in last year's education "reform," Senator Ted Kennedy. Along with fellow Democrats, Teddy is now denouncing Mr. Bush as a cheapskate for leaving U.S. education "underfunded." So only a year after that supposedly epic change, the politicians are back to measuring education success by how much is spent, not how much kids learn.

The folly of that idea is on display right next door to the U.S. Capitol in the District of Columbia public schools. They boast (if that's the right word) the third highest spending per pupil in the nation, and D.C. teachers' salaries rank eighth. Yet their students score rock-bottom nationwide in math and reading for fourth-graders, and in math, reading and science for eighth-graders.

Compare that with spending and performance of other schools in the same city and region. As the nearby chart illustrates, Washington's Catholic schools manage to give children a real education for less than two-thirds the cost of the public schools. And these are by no means white enclaves: 56% of Washington's Catholic-school students are African-American, a figure that rises to 69% at the elementary level. As for excellence, how is it that Gonzaga College High School, the city's premier Catholic school, manages to produce its high results at a per pupil cost of $11,000-$12,000 -- about the same as the D.C. average?

Much the same goes for Washington's suburban public competitors. Only one of the neighboring six districts in Virginia and Maryland spends more per pupil than the District. But a Manhattan Institute study of African-American graduation rates in the nation's top 50 districts showed that Fairfax, Prince George's and Montgomery Counties respectively clocked in at No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. And they all did it while spending significantly less money per pupil than the District.

Spending by the D.C. public schools (elementary and secondary) as measured against spending by the D.C. parochial schools and surrounding suburban school districts.

School District Spending per Pupil
District of Columbia $10,836
D.C. Catholic schools $6,399
Prince George's County, Md. $7,286
Montgomery County, Md. $8,963
Fairfax, Va. $8,530
Arlington, Va. $10,983
Prince William, Va. $6,624
Loudon, Va. $7,124
Source: Census Bureau, Archdiocese of Washington

In fairness, Mr. Bush did say yesterday that money is not the solution, and he has tried to tie federal funding to state performance. Yet his big mistake last year was abandoning all but the tiniest school choice provisions in his reform bill. Absent the competition offered by choice, the pressure grows over time to dumb down tough standards -- as is now happening in Mr. Bush's home state of Texas, where school officials fear that embarrassingly few students can pass the high-school exit exam. Governors are already griping that the new federal standards are too onerous.

President Bush rightly noted that in most places in America, the federal government can (and should) have only a marginal impact on education. But that's what would make a school choice pilot program for D.C. so compelling, because it is the one place the Federal Government has the responsibility and authority to act. Unfortunately, when it comes to choice the White House still gives mixed signals. While Education Secretary Rod Paige has set up a shop to promote school choice in his department, President Bush shies away from endorsing it in public.

Meanwhile, the Democrats whose support he bought last year by dumping choice are now turning on him. Senator Kennedy characterized Mr. Bush's announcement the other day of $1 billion in additional spending for Title I students as "hollow talk." He told the Associated Press that "it's wrong to ask schools to do better on pocket change." Democratic Presidential candidates John Edwards and John Kerry are already repeating this tired teachers' union mantra.

It's too early to judge last year's education reform a complete failure. But Mr. Bush would have a better chance of keeping his reputation as a reformer if he went back on offense, and that means renewing support for school choice. He doesn't need to propose a new nationwide reform. The chance to make District of Columbia schools a model for choice is right in his own backyard.

URL for this article:,,SB1042078484835185064,00.html

Updated January 9, 2003

Copyright 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Printing, distribution, and use of this material is governed by your Subscription agreement and Copyright laws.

For information about subscribing go to