[D.A.R.E.'s] Program’s cost soars past $1 billion with little accounting

By Jonathan Riskind, Washington Bureau Chief, June 30, 2002, NEWS 01A

Even as concern has grown about the effectiveness of America’s most popular anti-drug program, few questions are being asked about how much Drug Abuse Resistance Education is costing taxpayers. Or who is accountable for the spending.
Neither the government officials who hand out the money nor DARE executives themselves can put a definitive price tag on it, but estimates from several independent experts range from $1 billion to more than $2 billion annually.
And despite questions about whether DARE works, it appears the cost will go up by millions even as the program is retooled.
DARE, viewed by many people as an arm of law enforcement, actually is managed by a California nonprofit organization and taught by local law-enforcement officers. Millions of students, mostly elementary-age, participate every year in about 80 percent of school districts in Ohio and the rest of the nation.
Critics say the loose structure of the program — consisting of local managers, a combination of funding sources and no central administration — makes it difficult to hold any single entity accountable and evaluate whether DARE is worth the money. It also would be difficult to dismantle the program if that is deemed appropriate.
DARE is funded with money from local, state and federal taxpayers, as well as private contributors. Much of it pays the salaries of some 30,000 police officers who teach the program.
Congress has steadily set aside more money for DARE America — from $1.75 million in 1999 to a proposed $5 million next year. Records show that as of 2000, the latest year for which numbers are available, $9.7 million in revenue from taxpayers and private sources went to DARE America, which oversees the program.
DARE America took in nearly $2.9 million just from royalties on the sale of T-shirts and other paraphernalia in 2000. The ability to raise money has allowed the nonprofit organization to pay its executives generously — including $276,000 to the company president in 2000.
Experts base their calculations of overall DARE spending on economic models, combining what they know about government appropriations with estimates of such costs as the salaries for police officers working in the classrooms.
Among the experts who say DARE costs at least $1 billion is Joel H. Brown, a drug-prevention education expert and an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. “The greatest success of DARE may not be in preventing young people from using drugs, but from its organizational capacity to build and maintain its own organization,” he said.

Stifles other programs

Regardless of the precise cost, “It’s a monopoly, and it’s a big ticket,” said Luceille Fleming, director of the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services. “There are many effective drug and alcohol programs that in some schools don’t have a chance because DARE is there and everybody is happy.”
The lack of accountability for the program extends to Ohio, where there are about 650 DARE officers in schools.
The office of Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery is supposed to issue an annual report “on the progress made in establishing and implementing drug-abuse resistance education programs,” according to an Ohio law that each year steers millions of state dollars to help police departments pay DARE officers’ salaries.
“These reports shall include an evaluation of the effectiveness of these programs,” the law states.
But Montgomery has not evaluated the programs. She said her office isn’t equipped to carry out such studies, saying it’s the responsibility of local departments to decide whether the program is working for them. Concerns nationally in recent years that the program isn’t sufficiently interactive, is mainly taught to elementary-school students and is not reinforced often enough as students grow older have resulted in a revision of the curriculum, which is being tested throughout the country. Federal officials sought to retool rather than reinvent or dismantle, they said, arguing that DARE is deeply entrenched in local police departments and schools. “We all said what we need to do is to try to improve the quality of DARE rather than just say, ‘Don’t fund it,’ ” said William Modzeleski, head of the U.S. Department of Education’s division for safe and drug-free schools. “It’s a massive organization.”
The result was a $13.7 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for a University of Akron researcher to overhaul DARE’s curriculum. The changes will be expensive because a goal of the revamping is to see that it is taught more widely in middle and high schools. As much as $30 million will be needed to retrain DARE officers nationwide and provide new materials, said William Alden, DARE America’s Washington-based consultant, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent and congressional liaison. DARE America provides workbooks and other materials free the first year, but then the materials must be purchased exclusively from DARE America vendors. But Alden says the motivation for rescuing the DARE program has nothing to do with pumping up the finances of DARE America. The organization receives a relatively modest federal subsidy compared with many nonprofit organizations and saves money by hiring part-time consultants, he said. “We have a lot of good people working on it (DARE) because they care and they can make a difference,” Alden said. “If you’re in it for the money, you’re in the wrong business.”
Ohio’s Fleming said she hopes for a more effective program. Still, it could take a decade before researchers know whether the retooled DARE works, Fleming said.

Tied to government

DARE America, which grew from a 1983 Los Angeles Police program in the schools there, has turned DARE into a business inextricably tied to federal and state purse strings, some critics say. “It is a big business . . . but it is rudimentary (drug prevention) information,” said one well-known drug prevention official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about DARE America and the DARE program. “It is money that could be better spent. We’ve learned so much more since DARE was first created. We know what works.”
A former assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration says that changes in the program show promise and DARE is too deeply entrenched to kill. Laurie Robinson, now a senior fellow at the Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said DARE will be worth the cost if the overhaul makes the program more effective. But whether DARE has been worth the price up to now is “questionable . . . but that’s why we tried to fix it,” she said.
Glenn Levant, president of DARE America, thinks that the program works. “We’re in this for the kids,” said Levant, 61. “This not a cushy retirement job for me. . . . This is my life’s work.” Levant made $276,000 in 2000. Five other DARE America executives received salaries near or at six figures, and attorneys and consultants together were paid more than $575,000 that year, according to the California-based organization’s tax returns.

Decline in income

In good times — 1998, for example — DARE America reported $11.5 million in annual revenue and a total net asset balance of nearly $3 million at the end of the year. By 2000, the most recent year for which tax returns were available, DARE America reported that annual revenues had dropped to $9.7 million and it had a net asset deficit for the year of more than $526,000.
That bottom line was even worse last year, although auditors are not finished with the 2001 report and tax returns are not yet available, Levant said. He said declining private contributions have put his organization in a hole that required him to refinance his Los Angeles home last year so he could loan $600,000 to DARE America.
Levant, a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who helped create DARE and then founded DARE America, said that he hasn’t taken a paycheck since last July and that other DARE America executives have had their pay cut in half.
Royalties from the sale of DARE merchandise don’t provide profit, Levant said. T-shirts, for instance, are sold for $4 apiece — not a price that yields big profits, he said. “This is not designed to make a lot of money for DARE America,” Levant said. “The concept is to have a reminder. When kids see the logo of DARE, it reminds them of their lessons.”
Levant and other DARE America executives say the patchwork funding shows DARE’s grass-roots appeal and the eagerness with which police departments, schools and communities support it.
“That’s the strength of the program — a local commitment,” said Alden, the DARE consultant. “There are a thousand different funding streams.” As DARE America struggles financially, congressional backers such as Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., whose former aide Scott Green lobbies for DARE America in Washington, helped make sure DARE America received earmarked taxpayer funds. That earmark grew from $1.75 million in 1999 to $2.75 million this year to a proposed $5 million for next year. Congress passed the increases even though the legislation noted criticisms of DARE.
A Biden spokesman said he isn’t sure what accounts for the proposal to nearly double DARE America’s earmark, although he speculated that the curriculum changes might have encouraged DARE supporters. “We’re strong supporters,” Chip Unruh said.

Concerns about cost

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy is now looking at whether DARE is worth the cost. The drug-policy office estimates that about $40 million a year in federal dollars is spent on DARE, although White House experts say it is difficult to track the money. “We like programs that bring people in the community together to fight drugs, and DARE does that,” said Brian Blake, a drug-policy office spokesman. However, “We are looking at how effective the (DARE) curriculum is. In this competitive budget climate, we want to make sure that what we are spending money on works.”
Much of the federal money for DARE is distributed through the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug Free Schools fund and U.S. Department of Justice anti-crime grants. Nobody tracks how much of that money goes to DARE programs, say education and justice department officials. The Safe and Drug Free Schools program, for example, handed out $472 million this year to states to distribute to local school districts. The federal government does not monitor how much money goes to what programs, even though Congress requires spending the money on proven programs or those for which effectiveness will be measured during a two-year period. Ohio received $15.8 million in federal safe-and-drug-free-schools money. About $12.5 million went to the Ohio Department of Education and then is distributed to schools in Columbus and elsewhere in the state.
Columbus Public Schools spent $30,000 of that money on DARE last school year, much of it for materials and supplies. Starting next year, the department will try to monitor more precisely how the money is spent, state education department officials said. The rest of the safe-and-drug-free-schools money coming into Ohio goes to Fleming’s alcohol- and drug-addiction services department, which funds two small DARE programs.

Differing Ohio approaches

Sgt. Gerald Roundtree, who heads the Columbus Police Department’s 13-officer DARE unit, said he has confidence in the local curriculum, adapted to suit the needs of Columbus students. DARE is worth the investment, he said. “If we can turn those kids who might be susceptible to drug use — at least put in their heads that’s not the way to go, that there’s a better way to go — that’s money well spent,” Roundtree said in May, before teaching a DARE class at Deshler Elementary School on the East Side.
But Columbus Police Chief James G. Jackson, never a supporter of devoting officers and resources to DARE, wonders how much more a revamped DARE might cost his department, which currently spends about $1.2 million annually on the DARE unit. The department receives a small grant, about $85,000 last year, in state taxpayer dollars from the Ohio attorney general’s office for DARE.
Sgt. Earl Smith, the police department’s public information officer, noted that a revamped DARE will be taught in more grades. “We can’t afford what we’ve got,” he said. “How are we going to do more? I don’t know that anybody is saying they’re against DARE, conceptually. The question is, ‘Is it doing what we need of it, and can we afford it?’ ”
The city will continue to participate the program for now, said Barb Seckler, assistant safety director. “Over the last year or so, we have taken a look at other drug-education programs. We need to remain very flexible in our deployment of officers,” Seckler said. The Toledo Police Department dropped DARE several weeks ago, pledging at the same time to work with the schools on an alternative drug-prevention program for the upcoming school year.
Toledo Police Chief Michael Navarre said DARE was not showing “significant benefits, and he wants to go another way,” said Capt. Michael Murphy, department spokesman. Navarre would take a look at the revamped DARE program, Murphy said, but “If you’ve got something that isn’t working, you don’t want to keep feeding that.”

 

DARE at a glance

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program is the nation’s largest school-based drug prevention program, but it’s effectiveness has been criticized and a complex funding web makes it difficult to say how much is spent on the program. Here are some facts about the program and a breakdown of federal funding:
* Origin: Grew out of cooperative effort between Los Angeles schools and police, beginning in 1983.
* Purpose: Trained police officers provide students with accurate information about drugs and alcohol and teach ways to resist substance abuse and violence.
* Organization: DARE America, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the DARE curriculum and training, grew out of the original DARE program. DARE America receives royalties from DARE merchandise, private contributions and taxpayer funds.
* Target audience: An estimated 8 million fifth- and sixth-grade students go through core DARE class each year. In Ohio, about 80 percent of school districts use DARE, about the same percentage as nationwide. The program also is taught in more than 50 countries.
* Changes: Because of the questions about the program’s effectiveness, the Institute for Health and Social Policy at the University of Akron is revamping the DARE curriculum.
FUNDING
Federal funding sources include:
* Department of Education: About $472 million in Safe and Drug Free Schools money distributed to states this year, although how much went to specific programs such as DARE is not tracked.
* Department of Justice: $933,576 in grants directly to DARE programs and $26.4 million to states over the past three years, although how much went to DARE programs is not monitored. Congress also earmarks money for DARE America through the Justice Department, $2.75 million this year.
* Department of Defense: $480,000 to DARE programs this year at dependent schools in the United States and abroad.
* In Ohio, a dedicated pot of money goes to local police departments to help pay DARE officers’ salaries. This past school year it totaled about $3.2 million.
Sources: DARE America, Institute for Health and Social Policy, U.S. Department of Education, U.S Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Defense, Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio attorney general’s officejriskind@dispatch.com
Copyright, 2002, Columbus Post Dispatch