The U.S Department of Education: Awash in Earmarks

While tracking down some details of the Dept. of Education's Inspector General's investigation of the Reading First debacle, I happened also on to his inspection of its earmarks.
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In the run-up to the 2006 election, we heard a lot about sneaky Republicans and their underhanded grants called "earmarks" where legislators slip in some money for a special interest group in their district or state. No debate, often with no one else knowing about it. Now, with a new appropriations bill passed and we've seen that Dems do it too, we don't hear so much about what an awful practice it is.

While tracking down some details of the Department of Education's Inspector General's investigation of the Reading First debacle, I happened also on to his inspection of the Department's earmarks. I was surprised to see that in FY 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 2,594 earmarks worth $369,655,366. They range from $10,000 for the Athens City, Alabama third grade violin program to $500,000 for "education programming" in Gila County, Arizona at Globe (pop. 7500), to $100,000 to the Alaska Hospitality Alliance Education Foundation for training in the hospitality industry.

There was the notorious $3.5 million to the scandal-ridden and now defunct Education Leaders Council, plus about $3 for KIPP Academies, and a million each for Teach for America and the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

What I find truly unfathomable, though, is that the department gives money to billionaires. While Eli Broad is plunking down $30 million to make education an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, the Department sent the Broad Foundation a grant of $4.7 million in taxpayer dollars from the Fund for the Improvement of Education Programs of National Significance (FIE). I thought foundations like Broad's gave money away. Silly me. And while former junk bond king, Michael Milken, lays $25,000 gifts on unsuspecting teachers from his and brother Lowell's Milken Family Foundation, that Foundation is getting $1.8 million from the Department -- from you, really.

Most of the money filters through two programs, the already named FIE and FIPSE -- the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education. About all these grants, the Department writes, "All funded programs must be designed so that their effectiveness is readily ascertainable and is assessed using rigorous, scientifically based research and evaluations...Recipient of award must evaluate the effectiveness of their programs and report such information as may be required to determine their program's effectiveness. The Department must make these evaluations publicly available.

Do the programs rigorously and scientifically evaluate their effectiveness? In a pig's eye. The inspector found that staff in FIPSE spend about six hours a year with each earmark. For FIPSE's 1,234 grants, that works out to 7404 man house, 925.5 man days, and 3.7 man years, assuming a 50 week work year and 40 hour work week. FIPSE, at the time of the IG's inspection had a staff of 15.

The situation is much worse at FIE. FIE managed 1,202 grants and staff spent 35 hours a year with each. That's 42,070 man hours, 5258.75 man days, or 21 man years. Little wonder the IG found that some FIE staff had responsibility for more than 100 grants.

For the grantees, of course, it's nice work if you can get it.

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