Education is a hot topic this election year, and both Al Gore and George W. Bush are trying to claim the mantle of the “Education President.” To listen to the two campaigns, Texas either has the worst public schools in the nation, or the best; the media should be able to determine which campaign’s claims are closer to the truth, but they’re more interested in reporting the debate than in providing voters with the facts. One point on which both Gore and Bush seem to agree, however, is that public education is woefully underfunded: Bush has proposed sinking millions of new dollars into Head Start (among other failed programs), while Gore has promised to continue the Clinton administration’s plan to get every child in America hooked up to the Internet. No matter which one wins, the Department of Education is here to stay, and the federal role in education is certain to increase.

With federal intervention, of course, comes greater regulation of education and more federal spending. Although many conservatives have argued that there is some sort of metaphysical difference between spending tax dollars on education and using private money—government spending inevitably corrupts, while private funds lead to nothing but goodness and light—there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that increased spending (both public and private) is part of the problem of American education, not its solution.

The September 2000 issue of Foundation Watch, a publication of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., reveals that private companies and foundations—including the Walter F. Annenberg Foundation, the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Soros Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—have enriched the coffers of public schools with millions of dollars in recent years. At best, the money—when used for such things as programs to increase reading scores—has had little or no effect; in many cases, particularly when it is spent on technology, the money has actually harmed public education. “Progressive” conservatives who believe that computers will radically improve public education should pay close attention to a 1998 study by Harold Wenglinsky of the Educational Testing Service. Foundation Watch reports that Wenglinsky found that “computer drills had no effect on fourth graders and a large negative impact . . . on eighth graders,” while frequent computer use at school “had a negative impact on scores of students in both grades . . . “

Foundation Watch attributes the failure of private philanthropists to improve public schools to the nature of public education itself, suggesting that “the private sector [is] simply buttressing a failed government system that is resistant to change.” While there is something to that analysis, it’s also true that most private schools are just as enamored of technology and the latest (and most expensive and untried) curricula as are public schools. The systemic problems of American public education have infected private education as well.

The public schools in my hometown in Michigan spend considerably more per student today than they did when I was growing up, but so does the Catholic school —and the quality of education has declined at both. Those who are concerned about American education should consider the possibility that, above a certain basic level, any money—public or private—that is spent on education may have a detrimental effect, because it allows schools to set up programs that distract them from their central mission. For my part, I’ll vote for the presidential candidate who vows to eliminate the Department of Education while urging schools—both public and private — to fire their grant writers and to refocus their efforts on teaching the three R’s.