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Prevent federal intrusion into education

The Budget Deficit Act of 2005 has the noble goal of bringing fiscal sanity to the federal budget. A reduction of $40 billion in government spending is a small but correct first step in regaining control of our budget. For that reason it was important that Congress pass this legislation. Like all bills with multiple titles, however, there are some negative aspects hidden within the 700-plus pages of monetary policy.

As advocates for federalism and local control of education, we are very disturbed at the introduction in this bill of a new entitlement program with mandatory spending. The Academic Competitiveness Grant Program, inserted in conference under Title VIII, Section 8003 of S. 1932, authorizes more than $4 billion in new spending. It seeks to reward students who take a rigorous course of study on their way to college. The goal is good, but the mechanics are wrong, if not blatantly illegal. One provision in particular could open the dangerous door to the loss of local control of high school curriculum.

This entitlement, a new type of Pell grant, offers scholarships to worthy kids who have completed a "rigorous secondary school program of study" — that part is justifiable — "established by a state or local government education agency" — that part is obvious — "and recognized as such by the Secretary" — that part is illegal and indefensible. This is the first time that federal higher education funds would be contingent on the secretary of education's approval of high school curriculum. Current law specifically prohibits this control of state curriculum by the federal government. It reads, "No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system" (US Code, Title 20, Chapter 31, Subchapter III, Sec. 1232a). The simple phrase, "recognized as such by the Secretary" will potentially extend federal intrusion into what is constitutionally a state and local responsibility. The language does not instantly turn the secretary of education into a national curriculum czar, but it certainly starts us down that treacherous path for the first time in history. The ill-advised criteria for this program may, intentionally or not, eventually turn over the control of our kids' curriculum to an unaccountable federal education bureaucracy. All thinking parents, teachers and local school board members should be alarmed.

A state not willing to subject itself to the deadening hand of federal bureaucracy will seriously harm students in that state in their ability to finance a higher education. No state will be able to resist this type of financial extortion and will ultimately succumb to the control of the federal education secretary. One can only hope this was not the subtle intent of the senators who sneaked this provision into the final report on the bill, but it is the practical result. As the National Conference on State Legislatures put it while raising the alarm over this provision, "good intentions do not necessarily make for good policy."

Also frustrating is the lack of deliberation over the merits of this new program and its new spending. This lack of debate may partly explain its disquieting content. The Academic Competitiveness Grant Program was slipped into the conference report for S. 1932 after versions without the program passed both the Senate and House. To the best of our knowledge, this new federal education program of mandatory spending was never heard by a committee in the House or the Senate. It was never voted on separately on the floor of either the House or the Senate. This program managed to bypass the scrutiny, input and deliberation of regular order and was unwisely attached to a must-pass savings bill. In a bill dedicated to limiting spending, the Academic Competitiveness Grant Program creates a new $4 billion spending entitlement, diminishing potential savings or forcing deeper reductions in other legitimate areas.

Even if the Academic Competitiveness Grant Program was the answer for poor student scores in math and science, it is the wrong approach. It threatens to undermine the responsibility of states over education; it threatens to undermine federal law; and it threatens to undermine freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. We commit to working to remove this troublesome provision from federal law. We hope all who care about their children's curriculum and local control of education will join us in this effort.

Margaret Dayton is a homemaker and current Republican member of the Utah State House of Representatives. Rep. Rob Bishop taught high school for 28 years in Utah before being elected to the U.S. Congress.