Senate liberals have scaled back President Bush’s proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut because they want to spend more of the taxpayers’ money on domestic programs, including the federal Department of Education. But President Bush also wants to spend more on education. He has proposed a $44.5 billion budget for the education department, an 11.5 percent increase over the budget proposal for this year.
But one day before the White House and the Senate agreed to spend more on education, an extraordinary congressional hearing revealed that the education department has failed three consecutive audits and that about half a billion dollars has been mismanaged or lost through fraud and abuse. An Associated Press story about the hearing quoted a member of Congress as saying that the education department’s financial practices are like those of “a Third World republic.” George Archibald of The Washington Times reported that the Bush Administration had inherited a “financial nightmare.”
That story was on page 6, and the Washington Post covered the hearing back on page 21. The Post noted that the amount of missing money could reach $6 billion. However, the evening news programs of the three major networks completely ignored the hearing. This is a travesty because education spending has become the new sacred cow, with Republicans and Democrats believing that more federal spending will somehow cause children to learn more. It’s a far cry from the time when President Reagan had called for the abolition of the education department.
The department that is supposed to help teach kids math hasn’t been able to pass a basic audit of its finances for three straight years. This means that auditors can’t verify where the money is going. An official from the General Accounting Office said that the education department’s student financial assistance programs are a “high-risk area for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement,” and that this has been the case for over ten years — since 1990. Twenty-one education department employees wrote a total of 19,000 checks in one year, without any other approval, totaling $23 million.
One area of abuse is government purchase cards used by hundreds of agency employees. In one year, education department employees charged over $8 million in purchases. But it’s not clear how much of this was legitimate. Some of the items, including computers, software, cell phones and Internet service, could have been diverted to employees’ personal use. The Inspector General of the agency said that seven individuals have plead guilty to theft of government property and conspiracy in connection with the abuse of $1.9 million of education department grants intended for two school districts in South Dakota.
Another area of abuse is the system that disburses grants. The agency itself discovered eight cases of duplicate payments that totaled $198 million in two and one-half years. The Inspector General found another 13 cases totaling $55 million. The Republicans in charge of the hearing expressed the hope that the Bush Administration and its new Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, would “turn things around.” But Congressman Charlie Norwood said he thinks the agency ought to be shut down until the financial problems are resolved.