Editorial

SEND SCHOOL FUNDING TO LOCAL DISTRICTS

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The same president who promised 100,000 more cops on the street has turned his attentions to education. President Clinton has pledged 100,000 teachers to help reduce class sizes around the nation. Sound familiar?

Yes, smaller classes in the lower grades is certainly an admirable goal. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Despite Clinton's pledge in 1996 to add 100,000 police officers over five years, many cities would not accept the strings attached to the federal funding, nor could they afford to pick up the costs once the funding expired.

And the program came with a hefty price tag for U.S. taxpayers: $8.8 billion for all 100,000 additional police officers.

But think even bigger for education. Clinton proposes to spend $12 billion over the next several years to hire the 100,000 teachers.

The plan is based on an average teacher cost of $35,000 in salary and benefits. Local districts would pay 10 percent to 50 percent of the cost, with poor districts getting a higher subsidy.

Missouri is taking a close look at the offer of additional teachers. The just-approved federal budget includes $1.2 billion to hire 37,000 teachers nationwide in grades one through three during the first year.

But there is a problem: Many school districts don't have room for additional teachers. That's because so many rooms already are taken up by federally mandated programs and the accompanying red tape.

Clinton's teacher plan could give Missouri $20.6 million in the first year to hire an estimated 529 teachers.

Most of the money is expected to be directed to districts with high levels of child poverty such as Kansas City and St. Louis. And these districts will probably be less concerned about future funding of the program, because the state school-funding formula provides a larger share to many urban schools. In other words, the state's taxpayers would probably just pick up the bill when the federal funding runs out.

The president wants to bring class sizes down from an average of 22 students nationwide to 18. But reducing class size so marginally isn't likely to make that big of a difference. Wouldn't it be better to target those school districts with much higher student-teacher ratios in the lower grades?

When will Congress learn? America's educational system would be much better off if additional dollars would come in the form of block grants to states and local districts that could put the dollars where they're needed most.