Like many businessmen, U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, can be pretty succinct.
In learning last week that the U.S. Department of Education failed a third consecutive audit, he said: “In many ways, it’s beginning to look like we are dealing with a Third World Republic.” Detroit Public Schools are not distinguished from such descriptors. Gov. John Engler recently remarked on the 2000 Census, which showed further flight from the city. Engler said the city suffers from the deterioration of the public schools. How long will this community sit and watch Grand Rapids Public Schools skid into the same row? Michigan can not attract the caliber of bioscience, engineering or technical worker it so desperately needs when its largest school districts fail.
In the government’s case, Hoekstra conceded it’s not easy to get a clean audit. “But it’s done every day in the private sector,” he added tartly. In short, there’s no excuse for the department’s financial condition. Yet there it sits like a big wormy apple without any of a corporation’s fear that IRS or SEC or federal prosecutors ever will padlock its doors.
What irked Hoekstra was the department inspector general’s report that the agency has experienced “at least $450 million in waste, fraud and abuse . . .”
Note the operative words: “at least.”
The IG acknowledged other undetected problems “may” exist. Nobody knows. What did come to light was that 21 agency bureaucrats for years were permitted to write department checks with no one’s approval. Perhaps such sieve-like accountability enabled several alleged civil servants to cut the department checks with which they paid for suburban Washington homes and SUVs for themselves. (Yes, they were apprehended; no, it’s not clear whether they received pardons.)
Yet the concern goes far beyond malfeasance and misfeasance. The real question concerns what function this department serves. We know from Congressman Vern Ehlers that, under federal law, the department can’t do much to improve education beyond passing out money with reins attached.
And while those reins, during the next four years, may pull the beast we call education part way in the correct direction, nothing prevents the next president from doing like the last one: dropping the reins and letting the beast slurp at the public trough.
Perhaps the problem is that the department never has risen beyond being Jimmy Carter’s campaign pay-off to the National Education Association. Maybe its only function is to provide taxpayer-financed sinecures for time-servers who can’t make it in public education. The department has been inert, for instance, about encouraging improvement in the substandard science texts in most American middle schools. In fact, the department is simply a bottomless irrelevance into which a river of taxpayers’ earnings flows freely.
To be sure, if the department runs in a Third World fashion, it’s certainly clear why it has not arrested the decline of American students’ performance to third world levels.
And we can expect no improvement at all so long as the public schools are an unchallenged monopoly more responsive to employees’ desires than to students’ academic needs.