President Bush recently announced that he wants to expand federal funding for school services to help low-income children. Yet the $1 billion of his proposed new funds for these kids amounts to less than a single day of military spending. Regardless, the Los Angeles Times reported that such “education reform” is a “signature issue” backed by Democrats and Republicans.

Political differences do exist, however. Some Democrats have responded that the president’s proposed funding increase for poor students falls far short of what’s needed. This qualifies as the understatement of the young new year.

Both parties supported the No Child Left Behind Act that Bush signed on Jan. 8, 2002. The NCLBA partly allocates funds to low-income families to move their children from inferior to superior schools. The funding is also available to pay tutors for after-school instruction.

Yet if educational opportunity was more than a word used to dupe the public, Congress and the president could have transferred tens of billions of taxpayer dollars from the Pentagon for Star Wars to public schools for smaller class sizes. But that was not to be. So goes the politics of education reform in the U.S.

Puzzling? The nation’s political circles of power have their priorities. High on the list is fully funding the Pentagon, not public schools.

The absence of evidence that military spending is more socially useful than education spending is evidence of the absence of critical journalism on these two subjects. To be sure, exceptions to this sorry state of affairs do exist. Regrettably, they are too few to shape public opinion much.

Concerning the NCLBA, the LA Times article noted that, “Some critics have said that approach emphasizes standardized testing at the expense of instructional time and imposes unfair penalties on problem schools.” Bush disagreed, shifting the criticism to unchanging schools where teachers fail students. “Instead of getting excuses, parents will now get choices,” he said.

Particularly, market choices are what await these parents. The Republican White House and Congress firmly back the competition of the marketplace as the path to social improvement. Presumably, the GOP’s mission to level the educational playing field by removing market fetters will unleash the untapped learning potential of poor students.

Positive education results, we can be sure, will follow the mandatory math and reading tests, given annually by states, to needy students in the third through eighth grades under the NCLBA. This testing requirement begins in fall 2005. Then, states will be able to determine which students are (not) learning their lessons.

Such testing is “the only way” to make accurate educational evaluations, according to the president. One standardized test fits all. More marketization of education means more standardization in public schools.

The LA Times article also reported that the Bush administration has boosted total federal expenditures on public education to $22 billion, a 40 percent increase, for the current instructional year. Crucially, this overall amount of public school spending pales in comparison to the current Pentagon budget of about $400 billion. Here are two public programs that receive disproportionate amounts of tax dollars, but aren’t generally reported in relation to each other.

The contrast between the two programs is stark. Accordingly, the political priorities are self-evident once people are informed. To this end, they need journalists with independent news media to buck the conventional wisdom and give the business of war more than a wink and a nod.

Meanwhile, low-income households are being used as pawns by political power interested in scoring points around reform of the nation’s underfunded public schools. But the marketization of education is no more a solution to the substandard schools that poor U.S. kids attend than “smart bombs” are the tools to liberate the Iraq people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Many in the U.S. would no doubt vote to transfer their taxes from the Pentagon to public schools if the politics of education reform was made clearer.
*Seth Sandronsky is an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive newspaper.