A Primer in Education Waste

, Peter Seabrook, Leave a comment

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Using that definition, federal education policy would certainly exemplify this concept, a new study indicates.

In “A Lesson in Waste: Where Does All the Federal Education Money Go?” analyst Neal McCluskey (pictured) sifts through the federal education bureaucracy and comes to some pretty harsh conclusions. McCluskey specializes in education policy at The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

McCluskey begins by pointing out the massive amount of money the feds spend on education, “from [inflation-adjusted] $25 billion in 1965 to $108 billion in 2002” and the minute, often absent effects of such spending: “sadly, while the federal government has clearly been providing major support for education, the indicators of what Americans are getting for their money aren’t good.”

Instead, “since 1970 math and reading scores for 17-year-olds have gone up barely a tenth of a standard deviation, while science scores are down nearly 20 percent. . . combined SAT scores have dropped markedly, with verbal scores plummeting more than 30 percent of a standard deviation and math scores barely remaining stagnant.” In attempting to achieve too many goals at once, McCluskey intimates, the Department of Education has failed in the “educational excellence” half of its mission, making any success in “equal access to education” that much less of an accomplishment.

“Given that failure,” McCluskey declares, “federal meddling in education should end immediately, and control should be returned to parents and states. Unfortunately, the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB] and the massive funding that has accompanied it have moved the country in the opposite direction,” the only positive effect being that “states are growing increasingly restive, chafing under the slew of new federal regulations that come with NCLB dollars.”

Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act “is. . . the bait the federal government uses to entice states and school districts to follow the most contentious of its education regulations. . . States that refuse to follow the provisions of NCLB risk having their Title I funds revoked – a potential loss of more than a billion dollars for some states.”

And, as McCluskey later argues, the federal government’s allocation of such funds is itself suspect: “Alaska, for instance, was the recipient of the most federal dollars per pupil in 2000-01, yet it ranked 43rd in poverty. . . Despite being ranked only 8th overall for poverty, Alabama placed only 22nd in federal funds received.” Some states have already begun “to revolt against federal control of education. By March 2004, measures either calling for repeal of the law or advocating state action against it had passed at least one chamber of 12 state legislatures.”

Such rampant inefficiency alone merits putting education back in the hands of the states, McCluskey maintains. “After all, all the federal government really does is take money from taxpayers and redistribute it, only with millions lost in bureaucratic processing and the remainder returned to states laden with inflexible restrictions.”

But, says McCluskey, a national educational system like this is at odds with the Constitution itself—“As the Tenth Amendment makes clear, ‘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.’ It is unambiguous: the Constitution confers no power to the federal government to regulate or finance education.” The simple reason for this is: “the smaller the unit of government, the more familiar it will be with the concerns and needs of its citizens,” as he puts it. “Having a distant, central power dictate one policy for the entire nation is likely to produce. . . ‘demands that are somewhere between difficult and absurd.’”

The original motives for spending any large quantities of federal money on education trace their roots back 40 to 50 years, McCluskey writes. On the one hand, “the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. . . shook the early Cold War nation and inspired an almost overnight obsession with ‘fixing’ America’s schools. For the first time, the federal government initiated curriculum and goal setting policies, leading to passage of the 1958 National Defense Education Act.”

The other big impetus for major federal intervention (read: spending) in education was “President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, with policies built, according to the Department of Education, around ‘the anti-poverty and civil rights laws of the 1960s and 1970s.’” These two causes, improving quality and enforcing equality, combined to form the Department of Education’s “official mission,” that being “‘to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the Nation,’ a mission broad enough to encompass almost anything.”

Hence the ever-increasing costs. “K-12 spending,” one of McCluskey’s best examples, “[in inflation-adjusted dollars] skyrocketed from $9.0 billion in 1965 to $53.3 billion in 2002—a 492 percent increase.” But within the “K-12 spending” category, funds are further divided up and portioned off to a truly diverse medley of programs, “everything from child nutrition, to pre-engineering programs, to mental health training initiatives. And new efforts are constantly being added.”

In fact, McCluskey asserts, the Department is so eager to take on new charges that “it’s clear that the leaps in federal spending are as much attributable to the government taking on new missions over the years as they are to funding increases for long-standing programs.” He later adds about the funds used in such bouts of federal spending: “those taxes are money that neither the states nor the people retain, money that would have enabled parents and states to do what they thought best.”

So, concludes McCluskey, the “federal government has broken with both precedent and the Constitution by inserting itself into American education, an area that is traditionally and legally the domain of state and local governments.” Even having done that, “very little of lasting educational value has been created by the federal government”—in other words, the feds didn’t even do a good job with their prize.

Yet McCluskey remains hopeful that mounting state outrage over the No Child Left Behind Act combined with simmering indignation over the crippling inefficiency of the whole system “might finally lead to what American K-12 education needs most—for the federal government to return educational control to the families, local governments, and states to which it belongs.”

A rising sophomore at Kenyon College, Peter Seabrook is an intern at Accuracy in Academia.