The Worst Education Money Can Buy

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There are people, lots of people I guess, who still honestly believe that the more money the federal government spends on education, the better educated our children will be. An interesting theory, however the past 40 years or so has proven this is not the case. Throwing more and more money into the public schools in our country has done absolutely nothing to improve learning. This isn’t just me talking; this is provable by statistical evidence gathered over the years.

As reported by the Cato Institute, even with the near tripling of overall per pupil funding since 1965, national academic performance has not improved. Math and reading scores have largely gone flat, graduation rates have stagnated, and researchers have found serious shortcomings with many federal education programs. Experience has shown that federal funding and top-down intervention are not the way to create a high-quality K-12 education system in America.

The federal government’s involvement into K-12 educational funding was kicked off in the 1960s as part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act was landmark legislation, and it remains the core of federal K-12 policy today. Originally Title I, as it was called, was supposed to provide grants to low-income areas, but it quickly grew into a more extended subsidy program that, by the 1968-69 school year, was subsidizing 60 percent of the nation’s school districts. Today it’s everywhere, spread all over the country.

Also at that time the teacher’s unions got much more powerful, as all the states unionized their workforces. Then in 1979 Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education under pressure from the National Education Association, and other teachers’ unions. Over the course of 40 years we’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars on K-12 education and test results have been absolutely flat for 40 years according to the scores of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the source for the most widely used measures of school achievement. I guess all that money hasn’t helped too much, eh?

Another crazy thing about all this money is that it’s coming from all the 50 states and it works like this: The states send in the billions to Washington, D.C., and then Washington sends 81 percent of it right back to the states, along with their federal regulations and demands. Excuse me? Why not just keep all that money within the states and spend it directly on education?

President Reagan came into office in 1980 promising to abolish the Department of Education, but he couldn’t do it thanks to Capitol Hill and other political obstacles of that time. If we could eliminate that department today it would instantly save this country $94 billion and do away with one needless government bureaucracy. This may sound like a radical idea, but it’s really not.

Canada, an advanced, high-income country, has never had a federal department or a ministry of education. They get higher test scores in international comparisons than we do here in the states. They’ve got more school choice, more vouchers, more charter schools, and more innovation. Yet they do not have any federal department of education.

Now how could this be? Easy. It’s because decentralized, innovative, local school boards do better than a federal department.

When the public schools were operated by the states and the local school districts, as our founding fathers intended, things just ran much better somehow. Back in the days before the bloated bureaucracies and federal regulations took over, education was in the hands of parents, teachers and the local districts and guess what? Kids learned. Now total per-pupil expenditures have roughly tripled over the last three decades and those increases have not added up to better educated people.

The federal government spends all this money because the teacher’s lobbies keep pushing for more dollars. The primary focus is on spending. Not innovation. Not new ideas. And not even the kids. It’s all about the money. They want more and more money. And the feds are happy to go along with this because it means more centralized control of the educational system.

And how does the allocation of money add up to graduation rates? Well, according to a paper published a year ago by the New America Foundation, Wisconsin has a relatively low per pupil expenditure ($10,791 – just over the national average) but the highest graduation rate in the country (89.6 percent). On the other hand, New York has the second highest per pupil expenditure in the nation ($16,794) but one of the lowest graduation rates (70.8 percent). The disparity in the District of Columbia is even greater – it has the third highest per pupil expenditure ($16,353) but the second lowest graduation rate (56.0 percent).

Hmmm. I guess money doesn’t necessarily add up to better learning. Maybe what we need is more involvement by mom and dad and less by Big Brother.

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