By Michael Farris
One of the most important issues facing the new Republican majority in Congress is what to do about the United States Department of Education. It would be a mistake, however, to think of the issue solely in terms of whether or not there should be a Department of Education. The real issue is whether there should be a federal role in education.
Prior to 1965, the federal government funded two principal programs concerning elementary and secondary education. In 1945, $46.5 million was spent for school lunches and milk subsidies for poor children. Another $13.8 million was given to school districts which were considered "federally impacted areas." For example, I grew up in eastern Washington state, and the school I attended was in a district that received this funding because a large percentage of the workers in the area were employed at the nearby federal nuclear weapons facility. This funding was in lieu of property taxes which would have been paid had the federal facility been owned and operated by private industry. These two programs constituted the general extent of the federal government's role in education from 1945 until 1964 (although the spending rose to $427 million for school lunches and $344 million for federally impacted areas in 1964).
Why should home schoolers care? See the President's Corner.
LBJ's ESEA Promised Utopia
In 1965, there was a dramatic expansion in the federal role in education. Lyndon Johnson, the first president to call himself "the education President," launched a massive federal welfare-state approach for education. The cornerstone of his program was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which was reauthorized in 1994 by H.R. 6).
As a result of Johnson's ESEA and other efforts, federal spending on education skyrocketed 344% in a single year—rising from $478 million to $1.646 billion.
Oh, the predictions of glory that were made for education based on the new "improvements" coming from federal involvement. Carl Perkins, one of LBJ's key congressional leaders, declared, "If we can reduce the cost of crime, delinquency, unemployment, and welfare in the future by well-directed spending on education now, certainly, on this account alone, we will have made a sound investment."
Today, the bitter reality is this: crime is far worse; delinquency problems have changed from hubcap theft to carjacking, murder, mayhem, and rape; unemployment and welfare have become permanent ways of life with a pattern of generational repetition unknown in the 1960s. Obviously the blame for these increased problems cannot be laid solely at the Department of Education's door, but we can demonstrate with absolute certainty that the promises and predictions of "well-directed spending on education" preventing future problems have not been fulfilled. The federal vision of glory through centralized educational planning is a god that has failed.
Reciting the facts of this failure is akin to announcing another body count from a war that simply won't end.
SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores are down 35 points since 1972. And this is a test only taken by those intending to go to college. Perhaps a better, and even more grim statistic, is the achievement results of fourth graders in reading and eight graders in math. In 1992, only 24% of all fourth graders in the nation were reading at a level considered to be "proficient or better." Only 23% of America's eighth graders met this test of proficiency in math.
Not only are test scores declining, so are graduation rates. Since 1980, the year the federal role in education was elevated to Department status, the graduation rate has dropped 1.3%. Now only 71.2% of those who enroll in the ninth grade graduate from high school.
A Spending Spree
American student performance may be down, but spending is up. Way up. Do not be led astray by thinking, "Of course spending is up for education. The cost of everything is up since the 1960s or 1970s because of inflation." All figures on educational spending contained in the following paragraphs have been adjusted for inflation, so a true comparison can be made in real 1994 dollars.
In the 1972-73 school year, the per pupil cost for elementary and secondary education was $3,393 (adjusted for inflation, stated in 1994 dollars). In 1993-94, America spent $5,313 per pupil—an increase of 56.6% in real spending.
Don't blame teachers for the rise in costs. Average teacher's salaries have risen only 3.5% since 1972 after adjustments are made for inflation. We have hired 400,000 additional teachers, so total per pupil teacher costs have risen from $1601 in 72-73 to $2054 (93-94)—an increase of 28% in real dollars. The student-to-teacher ratio has been dramatically lowered, because along with the increase in the number of teachers, the public school enrollment has actually dropped by 2.4 million students over the same period.
The real culprit for the escalation of costs has been non-teacher (administrative and overhead) costs. In 1972-73, non-teacher costs were $1792 per pupil. By the 93-94 school year, this figure was a whopping $3260 spent on non-teacher costs for each and every student in America—an increase of 80.6% after the spending figures have been adjusted for inflation. For every new dollar spent on education since 1972, 76 cents went to administrative costs, and only 24 cents went for teachers.
Since 1980, the year the federal role was elevated to a full-fledged "Department of Education," federal per pupil spending for elementary and secondary schools has gone from $7.1 billion to $14.4 billion in 1994. When the figures are adjusted for inflation, the level of federal spending has risen just 12%.
American public schools could have a bonanza for the classroom if we would eliminate all federal funding and simply control the administrative costs of education. If administrative costs had been controlled to rise at only the same rate as teacher costs (28% in real dollars), the non-teacher costs of education today would be $2293 per pupil instead of $3260 per pupil, a savings of $967 per pupil. If we eliminated every dollar of federal spending ($333 per pupil), and controlled administrative costs to match teacher costs, we would still have an additional $459 per pupil to spend each year on education. Given the current student-teacher ratio (17.3 to 1), this would give our schools an additional $7940.70 per year to spend on every classroom in America. This is more than enough money to buy two computers with CD-Rom and a current CD-rom encyclopedia, plus a laser jet printer for each computer, for every classroom in America each and every year. In just five years, we could have one computer for every 1.7 students in America, if we would simultaneously eliminate the federal role in education and control the administrative costs of public schools.
On January 12, 1995, Sally Christensen, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget, appeared before a congressional subcommittee to ask for more federal funding for education. She said, "We in the Department of Education—over many years and with various administrations—have worked closely with this Subcommittee to carry out effectively the Federal role in improving American education, and we look forward to continuing that tradition."
The sad reality is that the pattern which has emerged from the federal role in education is a pattern of more spending (especially for administration), fewer students, lower SAT scores, lower graduation rates, and dismal rates of academic proficiency.
Americans are reaping a harvest of educational failure which is not unlike the economic failure which led to the demise of the Soviet Union. Simply put, centralized planning does not work. It did not produce the necessary consumer goods and food needed in the Soviet Union, and it has not produced the necessary educational gains needed in the United States.
The regime of centralized planning imposed by the federal role in education has led to a culture where centralization is the key reality in all levels of educational decision-making. Local school district administration staffing levels and state departments of education have dramatically increased in the years of federalized education. District and state administration growth is due primarily to the fact that most local decisions need to be evaluated in light of any potential impact on eligibility for federal funds.
The educational culture of centralization dramatically stifles the ability of teachers to use their professional judgment to adapt general plans to meet the needs, desires, and aptitudes of individual students. And in this culture of centralization, parents have been left without a meaningful voice in the education of their own children. If they come to the school with a concern, the teacher legitimately says, "I'm really sorry, there is nothing I can do about that—it's a federal (or sometimes a state) mandate."
Education works when the teacher is free to make professional judgments about how to meet the needs of each individual child, provided that the parents have a real ability to hold that teacher accountable. That balance of teacher professionalism and parental authority will never return to American schools so long as there is any federal role in education.
Former Secretaries of Education Lamar Alexander and Bill Bennett recently issued a joint statement which concluded that the Department of Education "has an irresistible and uncontrollable impulse to stick its nose into areas where it has no proper business. Most of what it does today is no legitimate affair of the federal government. The Education Department operates from the deeply erroneous belief that American parents, teachers, communities and states are too stupid to raise their own children, run their own schools and make their own decisions."
Bennett and Alexander concluded that Congress should abolish the Department of Education. It is time to do just that.
Every family should receive a tax cut equaling the total federal budget on education. This transfers financial capacity back to the state and local governments. After tremendous savings in administrative costs are realized, local school boards and state legislatures can decide how much, if any, of this tax cut will be needed for the classroom.
Education is one of the cornerstones of our society. It must not be entrusted to anyone too far removed from the child. Teachers, principals, parents, and school boards can make education work. Centralized bureaucracies not only don't work, they are destroying the opportunity for excellence so desperately needed by this generation of American children.