Happy Birthday, US Department of Education…Now Go Away

Next month marks the 36th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Department of Education.

Proponents insisted that such a department would improve federal education spending efficiency as well as student achievement. Opponents countered that there is scant (if any) evidence that increasing federal control over education would achieve either.

Turns out, they were right.

Focusing on just elementary and secondary education, on-budget federal education appropriations increased more than 490 percent in real terms between fiscal years 1965 and 2014, from $13.5 billion to $80.1 billion.

Meanwhile, elementary and secondary enrollment increased by about only 30 percent over the same period, from 42.2 million students to 55 million students (see here and here).

If the U.S. Department of Education had, in fact, lived up to its stated purpose of improving the productivity of federal education spending, then we should see a substantial increase in student performance after its establishment.

But we haven’t.

The longest-running nationally representative math and reading assessment of American students is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card. Long-term trend results in both subjects are reported on a scale of 0 – 500. Students who score a 300 or above can solve moderately complex problems in math and understand relatively complicated reading materials.

Long-term trend math performance of 17-year-olds in NAEP math has increased only slightly since the early 1970s, from 52 percent of students scoring at 300 or above to 60 percent in 2012 (the latest year results are available), an improvement of just over 15 percent.

Long-term trend NAEP reading performance of 17-year-olds has remained flat since 1978 (the earliest year data are available in this subject), with just 39 percent of 17-year-olds scoring at 300 or above then and in 2012.

Per-pupil expenditures now exceed $12,000 on average nationwide, with the federal government kicking in around 10 percent of that amount.

So it appears the U.S. Department of Education has done little if anything to improve the bang-for-buck ratio with regard to federal education spending and student achievement.

But it’s also worth considering how much the actual department is costing taxpayers in terms of administrative expenses and overhead. According to the education department’s 2015 Salaries and Expenses Overview:

The Department’s programs and responsibilities have grown substantially over the past decade. There has been landmark legislation affecting the very core of the Department’s business. From elementary and secondary education reform to the transition to 100 percent direct lending, the past decade has seen a steady and significant growth in Department workload (p. Y-4).

The average education department staff salary exceeds $100,000 jumping to nearly $170,000 on average for senior and executive level staff. In all, the education department requested salary and expense discretionary funding of nearly $2.1 billion in 2015, an increase of nearly $305 million (9 percent) from 2014 (pp. Y and Y-10).

Back in 1866, when the idea of a national education department was first being debated in Congress, opponent Rep. Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania predicted that it would amount to

…a bureau at an extravagant rate of pay, and an undue number of clerks collecting statistics . . . [that] does not propose to teach a single child . . . its a, b, c’s.

Nearly 150 years of federal interference in education is enough. As US Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) noted in Conscience of a Conservative in 1960:

…the federal government has no funds except those it extracts from the taxpayers who reside in the various States. The money that the federal government pays to State X for education has been taken from the citizens of State X in federal taxes and comes back to them, minus the Washington brokerage fee.

It’s time to end the US Department of Education and put the real education experts back in charge of education funding: students’ parents.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) for K-12 students  first enacted in Arizona in 2011, and four more states since then, would be a much better way to ensure funding goes to students and the educational services they need instead of a pricey DC bureaucracy.

The ESA concept is simple. All the program and administrative overhead funding we now send to the US Department of Education should instead be deposited into student ESAs. With those funds parents could purchase the educational services and materials they think are best for their children, and any leftover funds would remain in students’ ESAs for future expenses, such as college tuition.

Importantly, ESAs are fiscally accountable because quarterly expense reports (with receipts) from parents and ongoing audits help ensure funds are not misspent.

Ultimately, parents know and love their children best, not the feds. They, not some far-off government bureaucracy, should be in charge of their children’s education.

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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