The Fayette Citizen-Opinion Page

Wednesday, January 3, 2001

New education bill brings more strings

One Citizen's Perspective

In a flurry of eleventh-hour presidential activity that has included over 60 pardons and one highly controversial federal judicial appointment, President Clinton signed the last budget bill of his eight-year tenure on Dec. 21st. After months of on-again, off-again partisan negotiations, the omnibus spending bill was approved by Congress and will provide funds for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education.

The Education Department was given an 18 percent funding increase for an additional $6.5 billion dollars, bringing the Education Department budget to a record $44.5 billion, more than double the department's funding prior to the Clinton reign. Included in the Education spending bill are budget increases for Title I, professional development, Impact Aid, and education technology. Also included in the budget is $1.6 billion to hire new teachers to reduce class size and $900 million in new funds for the repair of older public schools throughout the country.

It's easy to sit back and tick off the totals of countless programs that sound like good ideas, but careful scrutiny of the enormous budget is likely to reveal the shallowness of any significant local level impact.

The $1.6 billion for 100,000 new teachers amounts to something like six new teachers per local school district. The $900 million for the repair and renovation of older existing facilities is seen by many conservatives as yet another effort by the federal government to mandate every aspect of our public lives. No longer content to tell local systems what to teach and how to teach it, now the Department of Education has their foot in the door on telling us what kind of facility to teach in.

In an interesting turn of events, Congress also passed the Children's Internet Protection Act as part of the appropriations bill. The new law, sponsored by senators McCain, Santorum, Istook and Pickering, will amend the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and require all schools and libraries that receive federal "eRate" funding for the purchase of Internet access and computer technology to certify to the Federal Communications Commission that they are using filtering technology to block access to obscene or pornographic materials by minors. Sen. John McCain said that, "parents can protect their children from Internet smut at home but have no control over the computers at school."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), echoing concerns of free speech advocates, is expected to file suit to block the new law. Even the national PTA, in its online newsletter dated Dec. 22, 2000, expressed "disappointment... that schools receiving federal assistance for education technology [should be required to] install censoring technology on computers accessible to minors."

While efforts to "censor" the Internet for minors is seen by some as an effort to infringe upon constitutional rights to the free exercise of speech and expression, the move is undoubtedly seen by many parents as a stroke of common sense, and a measure of comfort in an increasingly uncomfortable world. I applaud the senators for having the political prowess to see this one through Congressional ranks.

While I agree wholeheartedly with the move to mandate the Internet filters, I can't help but recognize the obvious correlation between "federal" monies and federal rules. That it happened to play in our favor this time is of little comfort when you consider that these are our monies in the first place that the federal government is so graciously offering to return to us, with strings, and when you consider that public education is the responsibility of the local and state governments and shouldn't even exist at the federal level.

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