Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, commonly referred to as “IDEA,” is a federal law that governs the how states and public agencies serve children with disabilities from birth to age 21. Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act addresses the education of school age students with disabilities.
POLICY ANALYSIS NO. 444 "Escaping IDEA: Freeing Parents, Teachers, and Students through Deregulation and Choice"
By Marie Gryphon and David F. Salisbury July 10, 2002
Orriginally enacted as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act of 1975 was intended to guarantee each disabled child access to a free appropriate public education. The act is arguably the high-water mark of federal control of American education, regulating nearly all aspects of special education law and policy. IDEA is due for reauthorization this year.
With annual expenditures of about $50 billion, including $6 billion to $7 billion in federal contributions, special education is as troubled as it is costly. The occasion of IDEA’s reauthorization has been marked by proposals intended to alleviate IDEA’s myriad, universally acknowledged problems while improving educational outcomes for disabled children. For better or for worse, IDEA reform will dictate special education’s prospects for the future.
IDEA’s central failure is the complex and adversarial process required to determine the size and nature of each disabled child’s entitlement to special services. Recognizing that the educational needs of disabled children differ widely, the act mandates that each child’s “individual education plan,” or IEP, be created out of whole cloth by his or her local school district in a series of meetings.
The process mandated by the statute has not only failed to achieve its purpose of ensuring an appropriate education to each disabled child. It has marginalized the parents it was intended to empower and has created a barrage of compliancedriven paperwork so overwhelming that special educators are driven to quit the profession.
Worse, IDEA’s adversarial nature has undermined relationships between parents and educators, pitting parent against school in a bitter struggle over limited resources. Because the act’s procedures require savvy, aggressive navigation, its benefits flow disproportionately to wealthy families, often leaving lower-income children underserved.
IDEA has also precipitated a financial crisis in schools. Regulatory compliance and litigation costs related to IDEA’s failed dispute resolution framework are soaking up precious resources needed for education, while IDEA funding rules have encouraged incorrect labeling of many students as disabled.
The battle between parents and schools over each child’s educational plan must end with a decisive victory for parents in the form of portable benefits. Special education should be reformed to allow parents to control how their child’s educational dollars are spent in the public or private school of their choice..
From - https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/education/timeline-growth
Department of Education Timeline
By Chris Edwards
1787: The Northwest Ordinance provides grants of federal land for the establishment of educational institutions.1
1862: The Morrill Act provides grants of land to the states, which may be sold and the proceeds used to fund colleges that focus on agricultural and mechanical studies. However, "many states squandered the revenue from this endowment," according to a National Archives report.2
1867: Congress appropriates $15,000 for the creation of a Department of Education largely in response to lobbying by the National Teachers Association, which later became the National Education Association.3 The department, which has four employees, acts as a clearing house of data for educators and policymakers.
1868: After a bitter fight over federal encroachment in education, Congress downgrades the new department to an Office of Education within the Department of Interior. Education did not regain its separate departmental status until 1979.
1890: A second Morrill Act empowers the Office of Education to provide regular funding of the land-grant colleges.
1907: The Morrill Acts are amended to add federal funding for vocational education.
1911: The State Marine School Act authorizes funding of nautical schools in 11 specified cities.
1917: The Smith-Hughes Act funds vocational schools. The Act imposes a range of detailed federal rules on recipient institutions, which is an early precedent of today's flood of top-down regulations on the nation's schools.
1930s: The New Deal funds an array of educational activities including school construction and repairs, the hiring of teachers, loans to school districts, and grants to rural schools. These programs create precedents for later permanent education subsidies.
1939: The Office of Education is moved to the new Federal Security Agency.
1941: Amendments to the Lanham Act of 1940 provide temporary "impact aid" to school districts that host federal defense facilities.
1944: The Servicemen's Readjustment Act—the G.I. Bill—is enacted to pay for education costs of World War II veterans. The bill is widely supported, but like most subsidy programs, oversight is poor and there is substantial waste and abuse. A 1951 General Accounting Office report found that substantial G.I. Bill funding is going toward frivolous activities, such as courses on hobby photography.4 Some schools respond to the G.I. Bill by increasing their tuition for veterans, which allow the schools to effectively pocket the subsidies, while other schools resort to outright fraud to garner benefits.
1946: The George Barden Act expands vocational education subsidies.
1950: Congress approves permanent impact aid for school districts that have a large presence of federal facilities. In the first year, the government distributes $30 million to 1,172 school districts. By 1978, it is disbursing $775 million annually to 4,368 school districts.5
1953: The Office of Education is moved to the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
1956: The Library Services Act provides grants to the states for rural public libraries.
1957: The Practical Nurse Training Act provides grants to the states for nurse training.
1958: The National Defense Education Act is passed in response to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik. The Act funds higher education loans, vocational teacher training, and various courses in the K–12 schools.
1963: A series of laws expands federal subsidies for the health professions, vocational education, and higher education facilities.
1964: The Civil Rights Act authorizes the federal government to aid schools and higher education institutions to deal with problems related to desegregation.
1965: The Office of Education has 2,113 employees and a budget of $1.5 billion.
1965: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act creates a huge increase in federal education spending and regulations. The legislation's Title I is supposed to provide aid to K–12 schools in high-poverty areas, but by the end of the 1960s it is providing aid to 60 percent of the nation's school districts. Today, Title I is the largest federal subsidy program for K–12 education. In addition to Title I, the 1965 act creates subsidies for teacher training, educational research, school libraries, textbooks, student literacy, school technology, school safety, and other items. It also beefs up state-level school bureaucracies directly with "grants to strengthen state departments of education."
1965: The Higher Education Act is the basis for many of today's postsecondary education subsidies, including student loan and grant programs, college library aid, teacher training programs and fellowships, and many other subsidies.
1966: A series of laws creates new subsidies for international studies, adult education, and marine resources education.
1972: Amendments to the 1965 education laws add a slew of new subsidy programs for K–12 and higher education, and they create new education bureaus, institutes, and councils. In addition, Title IX is added, which bars gender discrimination in colleges and universities, but generates large bureaucracies of lawyers to administer, enforce, and litigate the complex rules.
1975: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to ensure free public education to all disabled students, and it spells out the services that school districts are required to provide. The law generates a great deal of legal and bureaucratic activities stemming from battles between parents and schools over whether federal mandates are being met. Today, special education is the second largest federal K–12 program.
1976: Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter promises to create a Department of Education, and he is endorsed by the National Education Association. This is first time that the NEA has endorsed a presidential candidate in more than a century of existence.6
1979: After much opposition, Congress narrowly passes legislation to split off a new Department of Education from the existing Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers provide powerful lobbying support for the creation of the new department. The Department of Education begins operations in 1980 with 6,400 employees.7
1980: When campaigning for president, Ronald Reagan calls the Department of Education "President Carter's new bureaucratic boondoggle" and promises to abolish it.8
1981: Reagan's first budget consolidates some education grants into broader block grants and restrains education spending.
1982: Reagan crafts a proposal to eliminate the Department of Education, but it goes nowhere on Capitol Hill.
1983: A blue-ribbon commission releases the influential report A Nation at Risk, which sharply criticizes the mediocre state of the public schools. The report sets back Reagan's efforts to eliminate the Department of Education and reduce federal intervention in education.
1984: The Education for Economic Security Act funds new science and math programs at the K–12 and postsecondary levels.
1986: The Drug-Free Schools Act funds various anti-drug initiatives.
1990: Reversing Reagan's decentralization efforts, President George H. W. Bush pushes for the creation of "national goals" for the K–-12 schools. Increasingly, the federal government is not just funding education, but trying to micromanage it.
1991: A Senate investigation finds that federal student loan programs are "plagued with fraud and abuse at every level," costing taxpayers billions of dollars.9 The investigation accuses the Department of Education of "gross mismanagement, ineptitude, and neglect."10 Annual losses from student loan programs rose from $448 million in 1983 to $2.7 billion in 1990.
1993: The Student Loan Reform Act creates federal direct lending for student loans as an alternative to subsidized private loans.
1994: The Department of Education admits that it is losing between $3 billion and $4 billion annually to waste, fraud, and loan defaults in its college aid programs. Education Secretary Richard Riley calls the department's financial management "worse than lax."11 One problem is that the department wires billions of dollars each year to obscure trade schools based on undocumented claims about how many students are enrolled on federal scholarships.
1994: President Bill Clinton signs into law the Goals 2000: Educate America Act to promote "national education goals," building on ideas proposed by President Bush. Clinton also signs into law the Improving America's Schools Act, which requires states to develop federally approved education plans coordinated with Goals 2000 and to adopt a system of tests to ensure that students make yearly progress. If states do not comply with these and other mandates, they will lose federal subsidies.
1996: As in 1980, the Republican Party platform in 1996 includes the promise to abolish the Department of Education. However, the party's presidential candidate, Bob Dole, is a poor salesman for such limited-government reforms.
1997: The Taxpayer Relief Act creates various federal income tax credits for education. Today, there are 16 special income tax breaks for education, including breaks for college expenses, education facility bonds, and teachers' classroom expenses.
1998: The Reading Excellence Act funds reading classes as well as efforts to reduce classroom sizes in the elementary schools.
2000: Congress creates new subsidy programs to pay for school repairs and renovation.
2001: The GAO reports that there are $22 billion of student loans in default.12
2002: A major fraud operation is uncovered in the Department of Education. A career employee forged more than $600,000 of false overtime claims and steals hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of the department's electronics equipment.13
2002: The No Child Left Behind Act is signed into law by President George W. Bush. It is 650 pages in length and represents a major new federal thrust into the classroom.14The law triggers a huge expansion in the department's K–12 spending: from $20 billion in 2000 to $37 billion by 2005.15 State officials complain bitterly about the onerous regulations of No Child Left Behind related to such items as student testing, teacher qualifications, Spanish language tests, and after-school tutoring.
2005: Federal student loan fraud continues at high levels. In one case, owners of a company called the CSC Institute steal $4.3 million of the $13 million it receives in Pell grants.16
2007: The America Competes Act creates a range of new science, engineering, and math education programs.
2008: Department of Education spending of $68 billion is more than double the level in 2000 of $33 billion.17
2009: The economic stimulus bill showers college students and state and local governments with $45 billion in extra education funding.
1 A useful chronology of federal intervention in education is in Digest of Education Statistics (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2008), p. 528.
From - https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/education/k-12-education-subsidies
Cutting Federal Aid for K-12 Education
By Neal McCluskey
April 21, 2016
Federal control over K-12 education has risen dramatically in recent decades. Elementary and secondary spending under the Department of Education and its predecessor agencies rose from $4.5 billion in 1965 to $40.2 billion in 2016, in constant 2016 dollars.1 The Department of Education funds more than 100 subsidy programs, and each comes with regulations that extend federal control into state and local education.2
A substantial amount of funding for K-12 education comes from other federal agencies as well. For example, the Department of Agriculture will spend $22 billion in 2016 on school lunches and related programs.3 Across all federal departments, constant-dollar K-12 spending rose from $13.5 billion in 1965 to $80.1 billion in 2014.4
Congress may have taken a step back on federal control with its recent reauthorization of education spending called the Ensuring Student Success Act of 2016 (ESSA). On the surface, ESSA would decrease much of the prescriptive federal control asserted under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). But as of this writing, it is too early to know what ESSA regulations will look like, and there is a real danger of sustained federal micromanagement of the nation’s schools.
Over the years, the states have been happy to receive federal funds, but they have chafed under the mandates imposed by Washington. NCLB provoked a backlash because of its costly rules for academic standards, student testing, unrealistic proficiency demands, and other items. The Race to the Top program (RTTT), passed in 2009, provided grant money to states that agreed to additional federal micromanagement of their schools, including adopting national curriculum standards.5 The Obama administration imposed further requirements on states that desired waivers from parts of NCLB, such as waivers for NCLB’s utterly unrealistic requirement that all students be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014. The accumulation of federal rules has suppressed innovation, diversity, and competition in state education systems, while generating vast paper-pushing bureaucracies.
Despite the large increases in federal aid since the 1960s, public school academic performance has ultimately not improved. While scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have improved for some groups and younger ages, math and reading scores for 17-year-olds—essentially, the school system’s “final products”—have been stagnant. In addition, America’s performance on international exams has remained mediocre, yet we spend more per-pupil on K-12 education than almost any other country.6 Federal funding and top-down rules are not the way to create a high-quality K-12 education system in America.
Congress should phase out federal funding for K-12 education and end all related regulations. Policymakers need to recognize that federal aid is ultimately funded by the taxpayers who live in the 50 states, and thus provides no free lunch. Indeed, the states just get money back with strings attached, while losing billions of dollars from wasteful bureaucracy. There is no compelling policy reason, nor constitutional authority, for the federal government to be involved in K-12 education. In the long run, America’s schools would be better off without it.
Origins of Federal Intervention
When the first American settlers arrived from England, they brought with them their educational traditions, which placed education firmly in the realm of the family and religious communities, not government. As settlers began to spread across the land, however, colonial leaders in New England feared that their social institutions-based on families and communities-were weakening. As a result, leaders in Massachusetts instituted what some consider a precursor to American public schooling, the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647, which created a partial public schooling system.7
The 1647 act required all settlements having at least 50 families to employ a teacher of reading and writing, and settlements of 100 or more families to establish a grammar school. The idea was to ensure that all residents were sufficiently literate to read the Bible so that they could fend off the inducements of Satan.8 Money to pay for teachers and schools could be raised either through tuition paid by parents or through public funds.9However, this system was more expensive and out of touch with daily needs than many New England colonists could support, and over the decades towns stopped abiding by the law.10
Outside of New England, education was even more decentralized. In the South, it remained almost entirely a family affair, with children being taught either in their homes or in private or community schools. In the ethnically and religiously diverse middle colonies, a wide variety of schools appeared. They generally served the needs of the region’s religious denominations, and were largely free of government interference.11
Education remained a state and local concern even with the establishment of a new federal government in 1789. Under the Constitution, the federal government is given no authority to meddle in education, other than via its jurisdiction over the District of Columbia and federal lands. The federal government also has an obligation to prevent states and public schools from discriminating in their provision of education under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1868.
Throughout the 19th century, American elementary and secondary education evolved almost entirely within state boundaries. Education did, however, become increasingly centralized within states. In the early 1800s, the “common school” movement-a movement to create free public schools for all-began to emerge. Supporters of the movement argued primarily that free public schools would enlighten the citizenry in a democracy, while integrating America’s increasingly heterogeneous peoples. By 1890 a majority of the states had not just free, but compulsory, public schooling, and by 1918 all existing states did.12
Over time, these institutions began to be called “public” schools, and advocates pushed for greater centralization and bureaucratic control over them.13 Consolidation of education continues today, with smaller districts being consolidated into larger ones, and states and the federal government seizing control from local governments for everything from teacher evaluations to curricula.
Despite this centralization within the states, the federal government generally remained out of the picture. In 1867 Congress appropriated $15,000 for the creation of the U.S. Department of Education, largely in response to lobbying by the National Teachers Association, later the National Education Association (NEA).14 However, the following year Congress downgraded the department to an Office of Education within the Department of Interior. The agency would not regain its departmental status until 1980.
In the early 20th century, the Office of Education was mainly tasked with collecting information about schools and teaching methods. The federal government funded very few grant programs in any policy area for state and local governments. That started changing with the New Deal in the 1930s. The federal government launched an array of temporary funding initiatives, such as programs for school construction and repair, the hiring of unemployed teachers, loans to school districts, and aid to rural schools.
There was substantial resistance to these “temporary” measures from policymakers who worried that New Deal precedents would ultimately lead to the creation of permanent federal education subsidies.15 A 1934 article on education in Congressional Quarterlynoted that “federal subsidies have been opposed on the ground that they stifle local initiative, and are paternalistic, economically unsound, and unconstitutional.”16
Still, even with the New Deal, the federal government generally kept out. In 1941 the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, under the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt, the vice president, and the speaker of the House, published The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution. It included the following question and answer: “Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education? A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.”17
Nonetheless, education groups, such as the NEA, pushed decade after decade for federal subsidies and the creation of a cabinet-level education department.18 Many bills were introduced in Congress from the 1940s through the early 1960s to make permanent grants to state and local governments for K-12 schools, with advocates pointing to unequal spending on schools in high- and low-income states. They also argued that the federal government could raise taxes more easily than the states.19 These efforts did not meet with success, except with the Lanham Act of 1941 and a 1950 law that authorized “impact aid” to compensate school districts for tax revenue lost because of the presence of federal facilities in communities. Also, dozens of bills were introduced in Congress in the post-war years to finance local school construction in response to the post-war baby boom.20
It was not until the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik that Americans, frightened by the prospect that the Soviets were ahead in science, looked to Washington to “fix” the public schools. For the first time, the federal government initiated curriculum and goal-setting policies, leading to passage of the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA) aimed at increasing funding for mathematics, science, and foreign language programs.21The NDEA did, however, keep an explicit connection to national defense, and thus was at least related to a proper federal role under the Constitution.
Growing Federal Role since the 1960s
The federal government’s expansion into education grew by leaps and bounds during the 1960s, with education spending a major part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), intended to equalize resources for low-income school districts, was landmark legislation, and it remains the nucleus of federal K-12 policy. NCLB and ESSA are the latest reauthorizations of that law.
ESEA’s Title I was-and remains today-its heart, intended to provide grants to schools in high-poverty areas. Despite the original goal of aiding low-income schools, Title I quickly morphed into a broad-based subsidy program. By the 1968-69 school year, it was already subsidizing 60 percent of the nation’s school districts. Today, Title I is the largest K-12 program, with grants to states costing taxpayers about $17 billion annually.
The 1965 act also created subsidies for teacher training, educational research, school libraries, textbooks, school technology, and other items. To create the infrastructure to administer the new programs, the act beefed up state school bureaucracies with “grants to strengthen state departments of education.”
In 1975 the Education for All Handicapped Children Act-now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act-required states to ensure a “free, appropriate public education” to all disabled students, and spelled out what services school districts are required to provide. Children with disabilities are no longer kept out of public schooling, but the act has also meant the creation of huge bureaucratic costs and a “lawyers’ playground” of legal battles between school districts and parents regarding what services schools must provide. It also may have spurred major increases in the diagnosis of learning disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, even though such ailments may not be more prevalent among children today than previously.22 Today, special education is the second largest K-12 program, costing federal taxpayers about $16 billion annually.
In 1976, the National Education Association (NEA), having just been transformed from a professional association into a full-fledged teachers union, endorsed Jimmy Carter for president, partly because of Carter’s promise to create a cabinet-level Department of Education.23 It was the first time the NEA had endorsed a presidential candidate, but the NEA had supported the creation of a federal department for decades. Indeed, NEA’s website says that in 1867 it “won its first major legislative victory when it successfully lobbied Congress to establish a federal Department of Education.”24 In 1979, after a major political push by the NEA, Congress narrowly passed legislation to split a new Department of Education off from the existing Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president, and on the campaign trail he promised to abolish the Department of Education, calling it Jimmy Carter’s “bureaucratic boondoggle.” In 1982 Reagan crafted a proposal to eliminate the department, but it went nowhere on Capitol Hill. Reagan’s efforts were set back by the influential 1983 study A Nation at Risk,written by a federal blue ribbon commission.25 As Congressional Quarterly noted, “A Nation at Risk was such a hit that Reagan political strategists began using its call for higher education standards as an issue for the 1984 campaign. This new enthusiasm helped [Secretary of Education] Terrel Bell and others block efforts to abolish the Education Department.”26
A Nation at Risk drubbed America’s public school system, famously intoning that “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”27 The report produced a bout of national alarm on par with Sputnik, and it similarly resulted in greater federal involvement. In 1984, the Republican Party dropped the elimination of the department from its platform, and it did not return until 1996, and then for only one year.
After Reagan, presidents vigorously promoted an expanded role for the federal government in K-12 education. President George H.W. Bush promoted the creation of “national goals” for the schools. Building on those ideas, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Goals 2000: Educate America Act to promote “national education goals.” He also signed the Improving America’s Schools Act, which required states to develop federally approved education plans coordinated with Goals 2000, and to adopt a regime of standards and tests to ensure that schools made yearly academic progress. If states did not comply with these and other mandates, they would lose some of their federal education subsidies. The Republican majority that was swept into Congress in the 1994 midterm elections removed the enforcement of national standards and tests, but did little else to curb federal education intervention.
President George W. Bush and Congress increased federal involvement further with the No Child Left Behind Act, which added stringent demands for state math and language arts standards, tests, and punishments for schools that did not make “adequate yearly progress” towards 100 percent student “proficiency,” both in the aggregate and for numerous subgroups of children.28 State and local officials complained bitterly about the onerous dictates of NCLB with respect to such items as statewide testing and annual progress, as well as teacher qualifications, public school choice, and after-school tutoring.
While there was widespread dissatisfaction with NCLB, Congress was unable to agree on how to change it for years. Into the vacuum came the administration of Barack Obama. It leveraged the Great Recession to push its own K-12 agenda, and it used extra-constitutional offers of waivers to escape NCLB provisions if states agreed to follow administration demands.
Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), which provided about $100 billion in added funding for education. About half the money was distributed under the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. To get it, states needed to agree to more federal micromanagement, such as:
Making progress toward college- and career-ready standards and assessments that are reliable for all students.
Establishing pre-K to college and career data systems that track progress.
Making improvements in teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all students.
Providing intensive support and effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools.29
Also within ARRA funding, the Secretary of Education created the $4 billion Race to the Top program, which required much more concrete commitments by states to receive funding than the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund; the latter was intended to get dollars out quickly to goose the economy. The secretary also allocated $330 million to two consortia of states to create national achievement tests. It was Race to the Top that de facto dictated what those “common” national standards would be, and the program was a contest between the states for money, with points assigned for promises to comply with numerous provisions.
One provision was that states adopt “college- and career-ready standards.” To get maximum points, these had to be standards common to “a majority of the States.” It was clear what this meant: the Common Core math and English Language Arts standards that the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers agreed to create earlier in 2009. States were also given points for agreeing to the common assessments Washington would select and fund. It was clear that the goal was to have all states using the Common Core and one of two national tests.30
Common Core was not the only intrusive RTTT requirement. The program also graded states on their commitments to implementing statewide student data systems, putting in place teacher and principal evaluation systems, fostering charter schooling, and more.31
In 2011 the Obama administration used an offer of waivers from the most onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind-especially the 2014 deadline for all children to be “proficient” in math and reading-to further push its policies. It required states to use either the Common Core or state-created standards certified by a state higher education system as “college- and career-ready.” It also required changes to how districts were labelled based on test performance, and changes to teacher and principal evaluations to use, among other things, “student growth” data. Worst of all, the process of being granted a waiver was very opaque, with the Department of Education seemingly able to unilaterally decide which states were and were not deserving of a waiver.32 This occurred despite numerous provisions in federal education laws similar to this one, which comes from NCLB:
Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or program of instruction.
A further federal intrusion was that the administration decided to bypass uncooperative state governments in 2012 by creating a Race to the Top program directly for school districts. The idea was to bring interested districts into the Race to the Top regime even if their state governments had either failed to win RTTT money or had decided not to apply.33
NCLB, RTTT, and NCLB waivers were huge increases in federal education power. They may also, collectively, have finally inspired a powerful bipartisan desire to rein Washington in. For years a backlash against education focused on standards and tests seemed to be growing on the left, and the federally driven Common Core curriculum standards and related tests-what appeared to be de facto federal control over curricula-ignited heated opposition on the right. Finally, waiver requirements that teachers be evaluated in part based on their students’ standardized test scores pushed teacher unions over the brink. The result was the ESSA.
The ESSA is a step back from federal micromanagement in so far as it ends NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” mandate, which essentially required that, for example, this year’s fourth graders have a greater percentage of students proficient than last year’s, regardless of the different composition or challenges of the class. The ESSA also goes to pains to say that the Secretary of Education may not influence states to adopt any specific standard or test, and it does not require that teacher evaluations be based on standardized test scores.
Despite these improvements, it is an open question how intrusive the ESSA will allow Washington to be. For instance, while the law eliminates adequate yearly progress, it still requires that states have uniform standards and tests, and demands that states intervene in schools in the lowest five percent of performers, and in high schools with graduation rates below 66.6 percent. States must also intervene in schools with poorly performing subgroups of students. It also requires that state standards, tests, and accountability plans be approved by the Secretary of Education, and while the Secretary cannot require that specific standards or tests be used, it appears that the Secretary may be able to veto any standards he deems to be insufficiently “challenging.” Furthermore, the law requires detailed district reporting on numerous indictors, including subgroup test scores and, potentially, several non-test indicators such as “school climate.”
How much control Washington ultimately has will depend on the final regulations imposed to implement the law, a drafting process just starting at the time of this writing. Already, there is evidence that the Department of Education may be exceeding the intent of the law, with Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) taking Secretary of Education John B. King to task for allegedly attempting to change the law’s “supplement-not-supplant” provisions by including teacher salaries in assessing “comparability” of school spending, in explicit violation of the law.
Federal Spending Today
Department of Education K-12 spending has increased rapidly, rising from $4.5 billion in 1965 to $40.2 billion in 2016, in constant 2016 dollars.34 Overall real federal K-12 spending, which comes from numerous agencies and departments, ballooned from $13.5 billion in 1965 to $80.1 billion in 2014.35
Here are the largest grant programs within the Department of Education, with the estimated outlay amounts in fiscal 2016:36
Title I. This is a $17 billion collection of programs, primarily grants to school districts based on complex formulas. Title I is the main leverage the federal government uses to impose regulations on the states for standardized testing, teacher qualifications, reading curricula, and other items.
Special Education. Special education programs authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act account for the second largest part of the department’s budget at about $16 billion.
Title II-Improving Teacher Quality State Grants. These grants, which cost more than $2 billion annually, are intended to improve the quality of the teaching force and principals.
21st Century Community Learning Centers. A number of studies have found that this more than $1 billion program to fund enrichment activities is ineffective and may actually have negative effects.37
Outside of the Department of Education, the federal government funds Head Start in the Department of Health and Human Services, Indian education programs in the Department of the Interior, the school lunch program in the Department of Agriculture, and various programs in the Department of Defense.
Looking at overall K-12 spending by federal, state, and local governments, there has been a large increase over time. Total per-pupil expenditures have doubled over the past four decades, measured in constant dollars.38 These increases in resources, however, have not lead to equivalent improvements in educational outcomes, as explored next.
Educational Outcomes Have Not Improved
Despite large increases in federal intervention since the 1960s, combined with large increases in funding by all levels of government, K-12 educational achievement has improved little. The most widely used measures of school achievement are scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, including its Long-Term Trend assessment, which has used largely consistent tests back to the early 1970s. 39
Figure 1 shows average NAEP scores for 17-year-olds, essentially the high school seniors who are the “final products” of the public schools. The average mathematics score rose just two points to 306 in 2012 from 304 in 1973.40 The average reading score also rose just two points to 287 in 2012 from 285 in 1971.41 These scores are on a 500-point scale.
Other measures show similarly poor achievement by the end of K-12 schooling, or at least a lack of improvement. For example, a recent statistical analysis of SAT scores that adjusted for participation rates and student demographics found, just like NAEP, there has been essentially no improvement, despite the large spending increases.42
How have things fared under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, Race to the Top, and the added rules related to NCLB waivers? It is difficult to isolate the effects of these measures because numerous variables affect school results, and many results do not closely align with NCLB’s start date. With those caveats in mind, NAEP tests paint a mixed picture. The Long-Term Trend exams show significant jumps in scores for younger kids and some subgroups, but also in some periods before NCLB faster or more sustained improvement. And scores for 17-year-olds-those “final products”-were again largely stagnant. On the “main” NAEP-subject tests given more often than the long-term trends tests and going back only to the 1990s-the story has also been mixed, with math and reading scores rising in many cases since the early 2000s, but also generally dropping in the 2015 test and sometimes having risen faster before NCLB.
Some empirical research has suggested that NCLB spurred some improvement, but the positive effects were quite limited.43 As for the goal of full math and reading “proficiency” by 2014, NCLB appears to have failed spectacularly. As of 2015, only 36 percent of fourth-graders were at or above proficiency in reading, and 40 percent in math. For eighth graders, only 34 percent were at or exceeded proficiency in reading, and only 33 percent in math.
It is possible that what improvements we have seen have been at least partly a result of students being more focused on standardized tests than in the past-including learning more strategies to exploit test designs and rules-and not necessarily greater learning. And test scores may capture only part-perhaps a small part-of what we want from education. Indeed, while federal law has pushed much greater focus on testing, some countries that place high on achievement exams, such as China, are greatly concerned that they are not instilling crucial attributes in their students such as creativity, and are looking to the United States for solutions.44
Aside from looking at overall test scores, examinations of the effectiveness of particular federal programs also indicates generally poor results. Consider the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which in 2016 received more than $1 billion. Repeated random-assignment federal assessments concluded that not only did the program have no overall positive effect, it actually had several negative consequences, including on behavior in class.45
Or consider the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), which has a budget of more than $1 billion. OII claims to be “a nimble, entrepreneurial arm of the U.S. Department of Education” making “strategic investments in innovative educational practices.”46 But experience shows that the department has not been very innovative, notes Diane Ravitch, who headed up the OII’s predecessor office in the 1990s:
We were always on the lookout for the latest thing, the newest innovation that would set the world of education on fire. Yet, in retrospect, it is hard to think of a single program that the department funded during that time that actually made a lasting contribution to the advancement of education… . When I first heard the Department of Education had created an Office of Innovation and Improvement, I was less than enthusiastic. It is not because I oppose innovation, but because I have strong doubts about whether the federal government has the capacity to nurture effective practices. My impression, based on the last 30 years, is that the federal government is likely to be hoodwinked, to be taken in by fads, to fund the status quo with a new name, or to impose a heavy regulatory burden on those who seek its largesse.47
Then there is the School Improvement Grants program launched in 2009 to provide $500 million a year to turn around the country’s worst schools. According to a 2015 Department of Education report on grant winners, average proficiency rates increased little in winning schools, and more than a quarter of the schools that had seen three years of funding and turnaround efforts had lostground.48
Misallocation and Bureaucracy
A basic effect of all federal programs is to redistribute income from taxpayers to the beneficiaries of programs and the bureaucracy that supports them. The tens of billions of dollars a year spent on federal K-12 programs could have otherwise been retained by families and used for education or other private purposes. The higher their taxes, the less income families have to spend on private schools, tutors, saving for college, or other educational expenses. In addition, without federal involvement, state and local governments-which are much closer to the people the schools are supposed to serve-could decide what they felt was the best use of public education dollars, whether reducing class sizes, paying teachers more, or giving parents more control by implementing choice programs.
Federal intervention has long been supported on “equity” grounds, or redistributing funds toward less-advantaged schools. But studies have found that the federal government is not very successful at such redistribution, even if it were a good idea. When you compare per pupil federal K-12 financing per state with state poverty rates, it reveals only a weak correlation, and comparing funding to states’ median household income has an even smaller correlation.49
Perhaps more importantly, federal funds are often offset at the state and local levels by reduced state and local funding. A statistical analysis by Nora Gordon of the University of California, San Diego, found that while Title I is supposed to steer money to poor school districts, the actual effect is quite different.50 She found that within a few years of a grant being given, state and local governments used the federal funds to displace their own funding of poor schools. Thus, poor schools may be no further ahead despite the federal grant money directed at them.
Other studies have concluded that Title I has not reduced the education funding gap between higher- and lower-income states.51 And, ironically, federal “supplement-not-supplant” regulations may backfire. These rules are supposed to ensure than federal money is only used for additional activities on which states would not have otherwise spent. However, the rules may make it harder for districts, among other things, to try innovative pilot programs, lest they run into trouble if they scale up successful innovations to all students, who must be funded using state and local dollars, not just the Title I funds that may have paid for the pilot program.52
Aside from redistribution, the theory behind educational aid to the states is that federal policymakers can design programs in the national interest to efficiently solve local problems.53 But involving the federal government focuses the educational policy discussion on spending levels and regulations, not on delivering quality services. By involving all levels of government in a policy area, the aid system creates a lack of accountability-when every government is responsible for education, no government is responsible.
The Department of Education has no teachers and runs no schools. Its purpose is to oversee more than 100 programs, covering pre-K though adult education, which are described in a massive department guidebook that is 328 pages long.54All these programs create intense bureaucracy at the federal, state, and local levels. If the activities funded by federal grants are useful, then state and local governments should fund them themselves, and that way the nation’s taxpayers would be saved the costs of hiring well-paid administrators at the federal level.
There are also large educational bureaucracies in state and local governments that comply with all the federal paperwork and regulations. For example, in 2008 the Department of Education estimated that 7.8 million hours of work would be needed for state and local education agencies to comply just with regulations governing Title I grants. That figure had increased from 2.9 million hours in 2003, mainly as a result of the No Child Left Behind legislation.55 In many states, a majority of state-level education department workers are those administering federally funded programs.56
Federal education programs have also generated large lobbying and litigation activities, which are a drag on the U.S. economy. Consider, for example, that the National Education Association-the nation’s largest teachers union-has a staff of about 500 and in 2015 received more than $360 million in dues and agency fees, the latter being forced payments from non-members who fall under collective bargaining agreements.57 The NEA influences federal policy through publications, conferences, meetings with legislators, and contributions to candidates. The NEA and American Federation of Teachers are some of the largest lobbyists and political spenders in Washington.58 Other than these unions, there are other education groups that lobby in Washington, D.C., including the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of School Nurses, and the list goes on.
Many lobby groups focus on particular education programs in the federal budget, such as the National Head Start Association.59 This organization, which has an annual budget of more than $5 million, pushes for increased Head Start spending every way it can, such as publishing a 16-page “Voter Participation and Lobbying Guide for Head Start Staff, Parents, and Friends.”60 The association even has its own Legal Advisory Service to provide legal training and legal guidance for the recipients of Head Start subsidies.61 Similarly, the Afterschool Alliance-in part created by the U.S. Department of Education-defends the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and advocates for other afterschool programs and funds.62
Over the decades, policymakers have argued that various state, local, and private activities require federal intervention because they are “national needs.” Consider the Department of Education’s statement on “The Federal Role in Education.” It says that while “education is primarily a State and local responsibility,” the federal government, in an “emergency response system” role, fills “gaps in State and local support for education when critical national needs arise” and promotes “student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.”63 Not only that, but “the Secretary and the Department play a leadership role in the ongoing national dialogue over how to improve the results of our education system for all students,” and the department runs “programs that cover every area of education.”64
These statements contradict themselves. They simultaneously claim that the federal government only gets involved when, essentially, crises arise, but also say that Washington leads all efforts to improve the system and is involved in every aspect of education.
One may call education a “national” priority, but that does not mean that the federal government has to get involved. That is because education is also a high priority of local governments and families: “national” need not mean “federal” or “centralized.” States, school districts, and schools are free to fund their own programs and learn educational techniques from each other. There is no need for top-down direction from Washington.
Indeed, recognizing that education is not something a central government can effectively administer for hugely diverse communities and people, America’s Founders gave the federal government no authority to meddle in education outside of its oversight of federal lands and Washington, D.C. The Constitution, through the 14th Amendment, also gives the federal government the job of prohibiting states and districts from discriminating in their provision of education, but that does not empower Washington to take on any active role in education that it chooses.
President Ronald Reagan made the following observation in a 1987 executive order on federalism:
It is important to recognize the distinction between problems of national scope (which may justify federal action) and problems that are merely common to the states (which will not justify federal action because individual states, acting individually or together, can effectively deal with them).65
Having high quality K-12 education is a concern of many Americans, but that does not justify having a federal Department of Education. Canada provides an interesting comparison. Like the United States, Canada is a high-income federation with an advanced economy, yet it has no federal department of education. Public education in Canada is almost solely a concern of provincial and local governments. Interestingly, that decentralized approach has resulted in substantial experimentation and innovation, including school vouchers, charter schools, and competing public schools. International education achievement data suggest that children in several Canadian provinces, and the nation as a whole, outperform U.S. students in reading, mathematics, and science.66
In the United States, the federal government has expended hundreds of billions of dollars on the schools over the years, yet all it has to show for it is stagnant test scores, huge bureaucracies, and masses of federal regulations that smother local innovation. The federal government’s poor track record proves how wise the Constitution’s framers were to leave such local activities to the states. Federal meddling in education should be phased out, and control returned to the states and the people.
1 These are outlays for budget function 501 within the Department of Education converted to 2016 dollars. Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2017 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2016), Public Budget Database.
7 C. J. Lucas, Our Western Educational Heritage (New York: Macmillan, 1972), pp. 474-480.
8 N. Ray Hiner, “The Cry of Sodom Enquired Into: Educational Analysis in Seventeenth-Century New England,” in The Social History of American Education, ed. B. Edward McClellan and William J. Reese (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1988), p. 3.
10 John C. Teaford, “The Transformation of Massachusetts Education 1670-1780,” in The Social History of American Education, eds. B. Edward McClellan and William J. Reese, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1988), pp. 25-31.
11 Wayne J. Urban and Jennings L. Wagoner Jr., American Education: A History, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 53-54.
12 Wayne J. Urban and Jennings L. Wagoner Jr., American Education: A History, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004), p. 171.
13 Bruce Cooper, Lance Fusarelli, and E. Vance Randall, Better Policies, Better Schools(Boston: Pearson, 2004), pp. 142-43.
18 J. I. Seidman and F. Van Schaick, “Expansion of Federal Education Program,” CQ Researcher, August 20, 1934.
19 Christopher T. Cross, Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age (New York: Teachers College Press, 2003), pp. 2-21. And see B. Putney, “Federal Grants for Education,” Congressional Quarterly, September 3, 1937.
20 H. B. Shaffer, “Federal Aid for School Construction,” Congressional Quarterly, February 2, 1955.
21 Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform (New York: Touchstone, 2000), p. 362.
22 Maggie Koerth-Baker, “The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic,” New York Times, October 15, 2013.
23 Neal McCluskey, Feds in the Classroom (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), p. 50.
34 These are outlays for budget function 501 within the Department of Education converted to 2016 dollars. Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2017 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2016), Public Budget Database.
36 Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2017 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2016).
37 See, for instance, U.S. Department of Education, “When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program: Final Report,” April 2005.
38 U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2014, Table 236.55.
39 Adjustments to the tests slightly altered the scores beginning in 2004.
40 U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2013, Table 222.85.
41 U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2013, Table 221.85.
42 Andrew J. Coulson, “State Education Trends: Academic Performance and Spending over the Last 40 Years,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 746, March 18, 2014.
43 See, for instance, Thomas S. Dee and Brian A. Jacobs, “The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Students, Teachers, and Schools,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2010), pp. 149-194. And see Rajashri Chakrabarti, “Incentives and Responses under No Child Left Behind: Credible Threats and the Role of Competition,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, November 2011.
44 See, for instance, Dan Levin, “Chinese Educators Look to American Classrooms,” New York Times, September 2, 2013.
45 U.S. Department of Education, “When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program: Final Report,” April 2005.
50 Nora Gordon, “Do Federal Grants Boost School Spending? Evidence from Title I,” Working Paper, Department of Economics, University of California, San Diego, September 2002.
51 See Amit R. Paley, “Program Widens School Funding Gap, Report Says,” Washington Post, December 21, 2006.
52 Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, “How Supplement-Not-Supplant Requirement Can Work Against the Policy Goals of Title I,” Center for American Progress and American Enterprise Institute, March 2012.
53 For a discussion of the shortcomings with federal aid in general, see Chris Edwards, “Fiscal Federalism,” DownsizingGovernment.org, Cato Institute, June 2013.
54 U.S. Department of Education, “Guide to U.S. Department of Education Programs,” 2012, www2.ed.gov/programs/gtep/gtep2012.pdf. And see www.cfda.gov.
55 U.S. Department of Education, “Supporting Statement for Paperwork Reduction Act Submission of Additions to Regulations for Title I, Part A, Grants to Local Education Agencies,” April 17, 2008, p. 8.
56 Christopher T. Cross, Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age (New York: Teachers College Press, 2003), p. 25.
• continue down the path of returning power to states, districts, schools, and parents that has slowly begun with passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act; • ultimately eliminate federal involvement in K–12 education except for supplying school choice in Washington, D.C., funding education for students in military families, and prohibiting discrimination in state and local provision of education; and • via tax reductions, let taxpayers keep the roughly $80 billion per year that the federal government spends on K–12 education.
The Constitution gives the federal government no authority to exercise control over elementary and secondary education, including by spending money and attaching conditions to the funds, the primary mode by which Washington has influenced education. And no, the Founders did not exclude dominion over education from the specific, enumerated powers given to Washington because they thought such authority was subsumed under the “general welfare” clause. They did not include it because education at the time was believed best left in the hands of parents and civil society — the families and communities closest to the children — and certainly not in a distant, national government. Fifty years of experience with major and, until very recently, constantly expanding federal meddling in K–12 education has proven them right.
A Brief History of Federal Involvement
The federal government, relatively speaking, is a newcomer to elementary and secondary schooling. As many advocates of a federal role in education are quick to point out, the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787 did contain provisions calling for territories to dedicate the revenue coming from the sale of portions of land to educational purposes. But those laws preceded the Constitution, were often ignored, and asserted no federal control over what might be taught, how, or by whom. And clearly, James Madison, one of the primary architects of the Constitution, as well as other members of Congress, did not consider education to be among the matters rightfully within the reach of the federal government. In 1792, Madison argued against a bill to provide aid to fisheries by noting that were Congress to decide that the Constitution furnished the authority to spend money on fisheries, they could also, absurdly, “take into their own hands the education of children.” Indeed, as recently as 1943, the U.S. Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, chaired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, published a document that included the following: “Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education? A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.”
Thus, federal governance of elementary and secondary education is of relatively recent vintage. A U.S. Department of Education was created in 1867, but it was downgraded to a bureau two years later and was charged mainly with collecting statistics, not governing. Not until the Soviet Union sent the satellite Sputnik into orbit in 1957, and the American public briefly panicked, did the federal government for the first time try to exercise significant influence over education. That foray, the National Defense Education Act, primarily aimed to improve capacity in science and engineering at the college level. And the act maintained a clear connection to a constitutionally explicit federal responsibility: providing for the common defense.
Only in the mid-1960s, under President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” did Washington completely break with the Constitution by enacting a K–12 law untethered to national defense. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted in 1965 and sought, primarily, to provide “compensatory” funding to districts serving low-income populations. The intent was not to exercise authority over states and districts, but to equalize resources. What was discovered over the course of about two decades, however, was that funding alone made little difference in outcomes.
By the early 1980s, many people considered the American education system to be failing. As a result, the federal role began to morph from one focused on funding, to one focused on control — control made possible only by attaching coercive rules to federal dollars. Indeed, the Reagan administration at first strove to eliminate the cabinet-level U.S. Department of Education, which had just been re-created in 1979. But in 1983, the administration published A Nation at Risk, a report with a Sputnik-like effect. It intoned, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The administration’s second education secretary, William Bennett, became a major personality to whom the media and public looked for guidance on education issues, and the 1988 reauthorization of the ESEA for the first time called on states and districts to demonstrate academic achievement. The era of “standards and accountability” had begun, and it arguably reached its apex with the 2002 ESEA reauthorization, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
NCLB asserted enormous control over the shape and functioning of K–12 education, requiring that all schools adhere to uniform state standards, be held accountable by aligned standardized tests, and bring all students (including numerous subsets based on race and other group identities) to full “proficiency” by the end of the 2013–2014 school year. Schools were punished if any group failed to make “adequate yearly progress” toward that full-proficiency goal.
Over time, parents and others increasingly came to dislike the law’s strictures and huge emphasis on standardized tests, and irritation evolved into disgust with the “Race to the Top” program. Among other things, that program in effect required states to use the so-called Common Core national curriculum standards and to use one of just two federally funded, Common Core–aligned tests, to compete for a share of a $4 billion pool of funding. The program also called for greater data collection on students and for teacher evaluations based on students’ standardized test scores. In addition, the Obama administration started to offer NCLB waivers in exchange for states adopting administration-selected policies. Those centralizing efforts united opposition on the left and right against Washington, the new “national school board.”
The end result of exhaustion with federal control is the latest iteration of the ESEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which President Barack Obama signed in December 2015. The ESSA is intended to remove the most onerous provisions of NCLB, Race to the Top, and NCLB waivers; those provisions include the mechanistic “adequate yearly progress,” coercion to adopt the Common Core, and use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. It is also supposed to eliminate much of the unilateral authority the secretary of education had under the Race to the Top and waiver systems. Still, a strong note of caution is needed: as of mid-2016, the Department of Education is drafting the ESSA regulations, and some observers are seriously concerned that the executive branch will gut the legislative intent on such matters as funding equity and measuring academic performance.
What have we gotten from ballooning federal spending and control? First of all, it is very difficult — perhaps impossible — to fully separate the effects of federal policy from numerous other variables that affect academic achievement. Those variables include state policies, local policies, students’ family lives, and attitudes toward education. Thus, we cannot say definitively that federal policy caused something to happen or not happen. Nevertheless, the evidence strongly suggests that federal K–12 interventions have been largely ineffectual and almost certainly not worth the money expended on them. Note that “governance” does not include interventions by federal courts, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education, which have often been necessary to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection requirements against state and district discrimination.
Historically, the evidence is powerful that neither government provision of schools nor compulsory attendance was needed for most people to educate their children. Numerous historians have noted that white Americans (blacks were often prohibited by law from receiving an education) had very high rates of literacy before there was significant provision of “common schools”; and very large percentages of Americans were sending their children to school before there were compulsory attendance laws. People valued education and did not appear to need government provision, which largely followed widespread education.
To assess learning in the modern era, the most consistent, national measure we have is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long-Term Trend Assessment. The assessment is a federal test given to a nationally representative sample of students — but without stakes attached and, thus, insulated against “gaming” — which has remained largely consistent since the 1970s. What does it show? Looking at 17-year-olds over the decades, achievement is almost completely flat, even though — as Figure 47.1 shows — the inflation-adjusted expenditure on the average student’s education has nearly tripled. That trend has been largely echoed by SAT scores; after controlling for numerous variables including self-selection of test takers, we see that those scores have also stagnated. We can also look at federal expenditures per pupil. As Figure 47.2 illustrates, inflation-adjusted federal spending per student rose from $443 in the 1969–1970 academic year to $1,148 in 2012–2013, again a near-tripling.
Figure 47.1 Change in NAEP Long-Term Trend Results (17-Year-Olds) vs. Change in Total Spending for a Child’s K–12 Education, in 2014 dollars, by Graduation Year, 1970–2012
What do we see on NAEP during the No Child Left Behind period? It is difficult to pick a starting date for the NCLB period. The law was enacted in early 2002, but NAEP long-term trend exams were given in 1999 and 2004 — neither very close to NCLB’s first year. That said, both reading and math scores for 17-year-olds were slightly lower in 2012 — the last time the exam was given — than in 1999 (the exam was also altered in 2004, somewhat affecting comparability). We can also look at the “main” NAEP (more frequent exams given since the 1990s that are not necessarily meant to remain comparable over time) to get a sense of NCLB trends. Those are also disappointing, with average reading scores for 12th graders dropping slightly between 1998 and 2015 (Figure 47.3). Math scores are available only between 2005 and 2015, so they do not provide a pre-NCLB benchmark to try to discern the law’s impact; scores increased slightly in that brief period (Figure 47.4).
Figure 47.2 Public School K–12 Revenue from the Federal Government, per Pupil, in 2014 Dollars, 1969–2012
National test scores for high school seniors have essentially not budged despite huge spending increases. That said, scores for younger students and some subgroups such as African Americans did improve over the NCLB period. The improvement occurred mainly at the beginning, which could reflect more a new emphasis on standardized testing — including testing strategies — than significantly improved learning. Meanwhile, some research that has tried to isolate the effects of NCLB has detected some possible benefit, but usually small and restricted to one subject. That is not bad news, but it hardly overrides the evidence that, in the final analysis, learning does not appear to have improved overall.
Figure 47.3 Change in Main NAEP Reading Scores (17-Year-Olds), 1992–2015
Perhaps as a result of the relatively poor outcomes indicated by standardized tests and, more likely, because of the public’s broad rejection of education heavily focused on such tests, Congress determined that federal power in education should be reduced. The recently enacted ESSA is supposed to return much authority to the states. Senate education committee chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) hailed it as “a dramatic change in direction for federal education policy,” reversing “the trend toward what had become, in effect, a national school board.” However, as the regulations are being drafted and debated, there is a very real danger that they will depart from the intent of the law and retain much federal control over standards, tests, and accountability systems. That must not be allowed to happen. Indeed, even if reforms based on “accountability” are effective, they originated in states such as Texas and North Carolina, and federal officials mainly observed those and decided they liked the idea. Then, instead of letting “laboratories of democracy” work, they imposed the model on all states, at the very least creating a national backlash against such policies, and perhaps dampening enthusiasm even in states that would have been inclined to adopt the approach on their own.
Figure 47.4 Change in Main NAEP Math Scores (17-Year-Olds), 2005–2015
Ending the hyper-prescriptiveness of NCLB is only the start of what Congress should do. Ultimately, federal involvement in education should be eliminated, with the following exceptions: (1) enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment in states or districts that clearly discriminate against different groups in their provision of education; (2) exercising the federal government’s fully constitutional authority over the District of Columbia and education on military bases; and (3) continuing “impact aid” for districts with federal installations (that cannot be taxed) and the large concentrations of federally connected children those installations bring there. Even those three exceptions call for a light touch. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been too aggressive in declaring matters such as transgender bathroom access a federal concern when the nation has had little chance to contemplate and discuss the competing values — especially equality and privacy — at stake; it is generally best for the people of Washington, D.C., to exercise control over their own education system; and impact aid may well be too high and wasted.
One final concern is worth noting: empowering parents to choose educational options for their children is a powerful thing, enabling the people who know their children best to select their learning environments, and people with different norms and desires to avoid zero-sum battles. But that does not mean it is desirable for Washington to “voucherize” federal education spending. Doing so — except for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and for military dependents — would be unconstitutional. Just as important, it would create a very real danger of imposing national regulations over such things as standards and testing, ultimately rendering private schools nearly as homogenous as public. The motives behind such proposals as “Pell Grants for Kids” are good, but the dangers are too great.
The Constitution does not grant the federal government any authority to govern education, and for most of our history Washington stayed out. Over the past few decades, unfortunately, that changed — first with funding, then with control. Pinpointing the effect — or lack thereof — of federal intervention on education is difficult. But the evidence strongly suggests that, while Washington has driven no lasting improvements, it has marginalized and angered parents and other citizens. The federal government should drop the reins and let people at the state level decide where and how to exercise education authority.
The selection of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has exposed longstanding tensions among education reformers who are united in their support for expanding educational choice but divided over the government’s role in regulating such programs.
The schism is often portrayed as being between those who support or reject “accountability,” but this isn’t quite accurate. The real disagreement is not whetherthere should be accountability, but to whom schools should be held accountable: parents or bureaucrats. As Lindsey Burke and I argue in a new report published by the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, educational choice programs like education savings accounts should place the accountability for academic outcomes with parents.
For decades, the term “accountability” primarily referred, in education policy circles, to government regulations intended to ensure quality. That’s because most children attend their assigned district schools, which are not directly answerable to parents and function as de facto monopolies. As Lindsey and I explain:
A distinctive feature of monopolies is lack of accountability. Because district schools are not held directly accountable to parents, some policymakers have attempted to impose accountability through top-down government regulations. Yet decades of attempts to regulate district schools into quality have had little effect. Unfortunately, too many policymakers have still come to see centralized government regulations as synonymous with “accountability” rather than an inferior alternative to direct accountability to parents, and have therefore sought to impose similar regulations on choice programs. However, regulations designed for a monopoly system are inappropriate for a market-based system.
In a market-based system, producers are held directly accountable to consumers for results. The government sets certain rules against fraud or health and safety standards, but the consumers ultimately decide whether a product or service meets their needs. Likewise, the government could ensure that ESA funds are spent on qualifying educational products and services, but the accountability for results should lie with parents, who are in the best position to evaluate those results. Holding education providers directly accountable to parents creates a feedback loop that does not exist in more centralized, top-down systems like the district schools. As social scientist Yuval Levin has argued, this enables the system to “channel social knowledge from the bottom up rather than…impose technical knowledge from the top down.” This channeling is accomplished “through a process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.”
If we want an education system that makes significant improvements in quality over time, education providers must be free to innovate and parents must be free to choose the providers that work best for their own children. This system evolves over time because higher-quality providers will attract more parents and lower-quality providers will face pressure to either improve or shut down.
However, technocratic attempts to guarantee quality through imposing uniform standards can interrupt this evolutionary process.
The Price of Technocratic Accountability
The technocratic approach to accountability requires that all schools are judged according to uniform metrics, therefore the technocrats rely heavily (indeed, almost exclusively) on standardized test scores, particularly in math and language arts. The technocratic reformers want to use these scores to set a minimum standard, meaning “underperforming” schools would be excluded from receiving voucher funds–or, in the case of charter schools, be shut down entirely–even against the will of parents who still want to enroll their children there.
Let us be clear about what is at stake. The technocratic approach would eliminate a family’s least-bad educational alternative, leaving children worse off “for their own good.” For example, parents may have chosen a private or charter school that did not perform well on the state’s standardized test overall, but the school may have provided a safer environment than the local district school. Or perhaps the school was succeeding at its mission to aid the most at-risk students, but the state’s uniform “accountability” system failed to take its mission into account. The damage done to children who lose the opportunity to attend schools that their parents believe are better than the alternative is incalculable.
We should also be realistic about the unintended consequences of over-reliance on test scores. Although standardized tests can provide parents with useful information about their child’s academic performance, using them to impose uniform standards that so narrowly define “quality” creates perverse incentives that narrow the curriculum, stifle innovation, and can drive away quality schools from participating in the choice program. As Lindsey and I explain:
When schools are rewarded or punished based on their students’ performance on math and reading tests, they have a strong incentive to divert their time and resources to tested subjects and away from others. A study by the Center on Education Policy found that the time district schools spent on subjects besides math and reading declined considerably after Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NLCB), which mandated that states require district schools to administer the state standardized math and reading tests in grades three through eight and report the results. In the five years after NCLB was implemented, approximately 62 percent of elementary district schools reported increasing the amount of time spent on English language arts and/or math, and 44 percent reported decreasing time spent on social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch, or recess.
The narrowing curriculum is particularly alarming because, as Jay P. Greenehas noted, recent research has found that “later success in math, reading, and science depends on early acquisition of the kind of ‘general knowledge’ and fine-motor skills learned through art and other subjects.” In other words, a narrower curriculum not only deprives students of having a broader and more enriching education, but also negatively impacts their performance in the tested subjects. “If we narrow education to the mechanics of math and reading as captured by yearly testing,” Greene concludes, “we short-change the broader knowledge that is the key to academic success later.”
Mandating a single test exacerbates this phenomenon. Within the tested subjects, schools have a strong incentive to teach the concepts that will be on the mandated test. This incentive to “teach to the test” can result in a de facto curriculum. For example, if a school had been teaching math concepts A, B, and C in grade 7, but the new state test was going to cover concepts B, D, and E, the school would almost certainly drop concepts A and C in favor of D and E, even if the math teachers believe that the original curriculum was superior. Keeping the original curriculum would put their students at a disadvantage on the state test vis-à-vis students at other schools that had aligned their curriculum to the test. This standardization might make sense in a world in which there was one right way to teach math, or at least one right order to teach concepts, but that is not the case.
Again, this isn’t to say that we should do away with testing entirely. As Robert Pondiscio recently wrote, standardized tests should be “used to illuminate and inform parent choice, but not to limit it.” Tests can provide valuable information, but using the tests as the sole or primary metric of performance does more harm than good. What’s needed is a more comprehensive understanding of quality that considers the needs of individual students, not just the “typical” student, and that’s something that parents are in a much better position to determine than technocrats.
The Potential of Parental Accountability
Parents are interested in more than scores. Parents consider a school’s course offerings, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, the inculcation of moral values and religious traditions, class size, teacher-parent relations, college acceptance rates, and more. Schools held directly accountable to parents, rather than technocrats, have to take all of these factors into account.
Of course, parents need information in order to make good decisions about their child’s education. Fortunately, research has shown that the vast majority of parents from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds are willing to take several steps in order to acquire that information. This is where independent organizations can satisfy parents’ demands for information with expert reviews and ratings and by providing platforms for parents and students to share their personal experiences:
Perhaps the most popular source of expert knowledge about college is the plethora of college ratings providers, such as U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, Forbes, Kiplinger’s, and Business Insider. These ratings offer prospective students a variety of information about student outcomes, expected earnings, course offerings, campus life, and so on. No rating system is perfect, but parents and students can compare multiple ratings to get a clearer picture of the strengths and weaknesses of different colleges and figure out which features are most important for them. Some outfits even rate the raters.
Parents and students are also relying in increasing numbers on user reviews to find the information they seek. Sites like College Times, Students Review, Rate My Professors, and Get Educated provide a platform for students to share information about their actual experiences at the college they attended.
The K-12 education sector has historically lacked high-quality sources of information about school performance, but to a large extent that is because the vast majority of students attend their assigned district school. With little to no other educational options, there has been little parental need for information to compare competing options. And without much in the way of competition, existing private schools don’t feel great pressure to be forthcoming about performance data. However, as states implement educational choice policies, the demand for information will increase and schools that refuse to share their data will be at a competitive disadvantage. We are already seeing parents to turn organizations like GreatSchools.org and Niche.com to find information about schools they are considering and we should expect to see more organizations emerge as demand increases.
In the interim, we should avoid the technocratic temptation to have the government rate schools directly. We have no good reason to believe that the government will do a better job of assessing school quality than private, third-party reviewers. U.S. News & World Report may offer crummy ratings, but the solution is having more independent reviewers (as the market has provided) rather than crowding them out with a single government rating system that is subject to political pressures.
Parents are adept at holding schools accountable when they are empowered with choices and armed with information about their options. As Matthew Ladner has shown, Arizona parents voting with their feet closed down low-performing charter schools earlier and more often than state regulators:
Arizona parents seem extremely adept at putting down charter schools with extreme prejudice. Arizona parents detonate far more schools on the launching pad compared to the number we see bumbling ineffectively through the term of their charter to be shut by authorities (or to give up the ghost in year 14 in an ambiguous fashion). Both of these things happen, but the former happens with much greater regularity than the latter. Having a vibrant system of open enrollment, charter schools and some private school choice means that Arizona parents can take the view that life is too short have your child enrolled in an ineffective institution.
There is no panacea. There is no perfect information just as there are no perfect bureaucrats or, for that matter, perfect parents. The question before us is how to design a system with imperfect people and imperfect information that will come as close as possible to providing every child with access to a high-quality education. The technocratic approach empowers bureaucrats at the expense of parents, often eliminates their least-bad educational alternatives, and creates perverse incentives that narrow curricular options. By contrast, making education providers directly accountable to parents allows for a more comprehensive understanding of quality that considers the needs of individual students and fosters greater innovation and diversity.
Rather than attempting to design systems that override parental preferences, education reformers should focus their efforts on empowering parents with more choices and work to build institutions that will help them make more informed decisions.