We Need to End, Not Mend, the ESEA

Today a House and Senate conference committee met to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was last reauthorized in 2002 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

There are numerous problems with the proposed compromise being considered (see here, here and here, for example).

But the bigger question we should be asking of Congress is why reauthorize the ESEA in the first place?

We’ve endured 50 years of federal meddling in elementary and secondary education, and we have scant (if any) hard evidence that DC politicians—whether it’s members of Congress, presidents or their education secretaries–know what’s best for other people’s children.

The ESEA was first enacted back in 1965 as a key program in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society efforts including the elimination of poverty.  The law’s stated goal was to help improve academic performance among disadvantaged students.  Yet ESEA spending has far outpaced both student enrollment and achievement.

From 1966 through 2012, total ESEA spending increased approximately 180 percent from nearly $8.5 billion in 1966 to more than $24 billion in 2012 (in 2015 inflation-adjusted dollars).

[Unpublished data from “Appropriations for Programs Authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1966-2012,” available upon request from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development (OPEPD)/Budget Service.]

Meanwhile public elementary and secondary school enrollment (prekindergarten through high school) increased less than 10 percent over a corresponding period, from about 46 million students in 1969 to 50 million students in 2012.

In spite of ESEA spending that has outpaced student enrollment by nearly 20 to one, student achievement has been essentially flat among 17-year-olds since the early 1970s in both reading and math, increasing just two scale score points in each subject overall.

Part of the controversy surrounding today’s conference hearing concerns years of unsuccessful attempts by Congress to reauthorize the ESEA . In the absence of Congressional  reauthorization, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan began unilaterally issuing waivers exempting states from various accountability provisions under NCLB without congressional approval.

While Chairman Kline and others rightly challenged Duncan’s constitutional authority to initiate this national “race to the waiver,” too many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle seem blissfully unconcerned over their own constitutionally suspect actions.

For all the popular talk in Congress about recalibrating the federal role in education so that it acts as a guardrail to keep the states in line, the word education does not appear in our Constitution, and Congress has no express authority over education. Period.

U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah rightly objected to the proposed ESEA compromise bill, stating that:

…we shouldn’t expand Washington’s control over America’s schools and pre-K programs. Instead, Congress must advance reforms that empower parents – with flexibility and choice – to do what’s in the best interest of their children. The policies in this bill move in the opposite direction.


What Congress should be doing is prohibiting any ESEA program from being reauthorized. All related program funding should be returned to the states with no federal strings attached—the most flexible plan of all.

Those funds, in turn, should be deposited into student education savings accounts controlled by their parents, not politicians—the most accountable plan of all.

Next, no piece of federal education legislation should be enacted unless the U.S. Constitution is amended giving Congress express authority to pass education-related legislation.

Finally, state lawmakers should enact and expand parental choice programs. Today, more than 1.25 million students nationwide are benefiting from parental choice programs in the states. Rigorous scientific research proves parental choice works; parental choice saves money; parental choice is constitutional; and, best of all, parental choice programs change children’s lives for the better.


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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