Politics & Policy

No Federal Failure Left Behind

The feds should get out of America's schools.

No matter how you look at it, federal involvement in education has been a failure. Nonetheless, with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the federal presence is getting bigger, not smaller. Yet the seeds of revolt have been sown: Parents, educators, and legislators are increasingly restive, and the NCLB is likely to be a critical issue in the upcoming presidential election. So it’s time to decide: Should the feds stay or go?

In 1965, the year the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)–of which NCLB is the most recent version–was passed, the federal government spent nearly $25 billion, adjusted for inflation, on education. By 2002 that total had more than quadrupled, reaching over $108 billion. Federal elementary and secondary education spending grew even faster, leaping from about $9 billion to over $53 billion–a 492-percent increase. Finally, just between 2000 and 2004, funding for the U.S. Department of Education increased almost 65 percent, from $38.4 billion to $63.3 billion.

Unfortunately, almost no profit has been generated by the huge federal investment in education. The Department of Education, in No Child Left Behind: A Guide for Policymakers, acknowledges this: “Since 1965, the United States has nearly tripled the amount spent on every public school student in the nation, even adjusted for inflation. Yet, over the same period of time, test scores nationwide have stubbornly remained flat….” Harvard University researcher Paul Peterson confirmed this in Our Schools and Our Future…Are we still at risk?, in which he analyzed data from Scholastic Aptitude Tests, National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, and several international comparisons, and found that “no matter what instrument is used, the results are roughly the same: America’s schools are stagnating….”

Examining just a small selection of federal education initiatives shows why federal policy has been so ineffective: From the largest programs to the smallest, the federal government backs a lot of losers.

Consider Title I of the ESEA, the centerpiece of the federal K-12 effort and its biggest source of funding. It accounts for over $12.3 billion in 2004 alone, and has divvied up billions of dollars among districts with high concentrations of low-income kids every year since 1966. It has also never proven its value, as Marvin Kosters and Brent Mast explain in Closing the Education Achievement Gap: Is Title I Working?: “After more than thirty-five years of experience and numerous careful efforts to evaluate its performance, the evidence has failed to demonstrate that Title I programs have been systematically and significantly contributing to reducing disparities in achievement by improving the performance of its beneficiaries.”

Like Title I, smaller and newer programs also continue to receive federal dollars despite either a history of failure or a high likelihood of failure. For instance, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after-school enrichment efforts around the country, started in 1995 with a small budget of $847,000. By 2004, its budget had ballooned to nearly $1 billion, despite the fact that, according to a 2003 Department of Education evaluation, the program “had limited influence on academic performance, no influence on feelings of safety or the number of ‘latchkey’ children and some negative influences on behavior.”

Or how about this: A partnership between the Long Beach Unified School District, the California State University at Long Beach, and an arts agency called Dramatic Results runs a project that the Department of Education reports “will provide systematic, illustrated information showing how to use basketry to provide quality arts instruction and how to integrate basketry into the academic curricula to strengthen instruction in math.” This program, which literally uses basket weaving to help teach math, has received nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the federal government.

Over 200 years ago, the nation’s Founders understood that federal intervention into state, local, and family concerns like education would be futile. They knew that the federal government would be too distant and unwieldy to solve problems in the nation’s diverse cities, towns, and hamlets. It’s a major reason why the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution declares that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,” and why the Constitution makes no mention of education at all.

We now know that the Founders were right; the failed federal foray into education over the last nearly 40 years has proven it. And so the time has come for the federal government to do as the Constitution demands, and get out of America’s schools.

Neal McCluskey is an education-policy analyst at the Cato Institute.


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