Who Should Determine Education Policy? Parents, Not Presidents

Who’s the biggest spender? That seems to be the education policy debate in a nutshell this presidential election season—and it misses the point entirely.

First, let’s put federal education spending into perspective. Funding for public schools comes from local, state, and federal taxes. Historically, the federal revenue share has stayed below 10 percent of total public school revenue, which exceeds a half trillion dollars just for elementary and secondary education.

Even the U.S. Department of Education, which was established in 1979 ostensibly to help improve student academic performance, admits that reading and math achievement among 17-year-olds today is essentially the same as it was back in the early 1970s. Long-term national assessments administered by the department indicate that in reading 17-year-olds have not moved beyond an intermediate level; while in math they have barely done so.

What’s changed is that per-pupil public school spending has jumped from an average of $4,700 in 1969-70 to more than $11,000 today. Over the same period the federal funding share has gone from less than $100 per student to more than $1,000.

Evidence suggests that we’re spending more and getting more costly administration instead of higher student achievement.

Reagan was the only president to at least attempt scrapping the department. Presidents since then have used it (especially during election season) as an expensive funding pass-through for pet policies claiming to make all students proficient in the basics by 2000…no wait, 2014. No wait again…34 states (at last count) have received a waiver out of the 100 percent proficiency target.

Meanwhile, in return for abdicating their constitutional responsibility concerning education the states have taken on huge administrative burdens (another problem a U.S. Department of Education was supposed to fix). Simply complying with Title I mandates takes about 7.8 million hours annually at an annual cost of $235 million.

During a March 2011 Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on the paperwork burdens to schools imposed by the U.S. Department of Education programs, Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter (R–CA) observed, “Currently, the paperwork burden imposed by the Department of Education is larger than that of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Justice.”

With less than 5,000 employees, the Department of Education is one of the smallest departments in terms of size, but it sure does throw its disproportionate weight around. (See a great chart here, as well as other charts here. For the cost of all this government, see here.)

With this kind of track record, our Framers were right to leave education matters to parents in their respective states, not Washington pols. 

That’s why parents should be in charge of their children’s educations—and state-level policies designed to accomplish that goal are what matter most this—and any other—election year.




Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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