Cutting Federal Aid for K-12 Education

  • 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.9 However, 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 Quarterly noted 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.21 The 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:

  1. Making progress toward college- and career-ready standards and assessments that are reliable for all students.

  1. Establishing pre-K to college and career data systems that track progress.

  1. Making improvements in teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all students.

  1. 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.

NAEP scores for 17-year-olds

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 lost ground.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.54 All 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.

2 Program count from

3 Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2017 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2016), Table 29-1. This is outlays for Child Nutrition Programs.

4 National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2014, Table 401.10, In 2014 dollars.

5 You can get a sense of the micromanagement from this document

6 For per-pupil spending, see Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Education at a Glance,” 2011, p. 209,

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.

14 Neal McCluskey, Feds in the Classroom (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), p. 18. See also U.S. Department of Education, “An Overview of the U.S. Department of Education,” September 2010,

15 J. I. Seidman and F. Van Schaick, “Expansion of Federal Education Program,” CQ Researcher, August 20, 1934.

16 J. I. Seidman and F. Van Schaick, “Expansion of Federal Education Program,” CQ Researcher, August 20, 1934.

17 United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1941), p. 128,

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.

24 National Education Association, “NEA’s Story: Answering the Call,” February 2006,

25 National Commission on Excellence in Education, “A Nation at Risk,” April 1983,

26 Charles S. Clark, “Attack on Public Schools,” Congressional Quarterly, July 26, 1996.

27 National Commission on Excellence in Education, “A Nation at Risk,” April 1983, p. 124,

28 For a detailed discussion, see Neal McCluskey, Feds in the Classroom (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), p. 86.

29 U.S. Department of Education, “Laws & Guidance/General, State Fiscal Stabilization Fund,” March 7, 2009,

30 For details see Neal McCluskey, “Getting the Common Core (and Federal) Facts Right,” Cato Institute, March 15, 2016.

31 U.S. Department of Education, “Race to the Top Fund,”

32 U.S. Department of Education, “ESEA Flexibility,”

33 U.S. Department of Education, “Race to the Top District (RTT-D),”

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.

35 National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2014, Table 401.10,

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.

47 Diane Ravitch, “Recycling Reforms,” Education Next, Winter 2004, pp. 34-40.

48 U.S. Department of Education, “School Improvement Grants National Summary: School Year 2012-13,” September 2015,

49 For per pupil education spending, see U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2013, Table 235.20 For poverty data, see U.S. Census Bureau, “Income and Poverty in the United States, 2013,” For median household income, see U.S. Census Bureau, “State Median Income,”

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,”, Cato Institute, June 2013.

54 U.S. Department of Education, “Guide to U.S. Department of Education Programs,” 2012, And see

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.

57 Data from National Education Association, “Welcome to the Career Site,” And see U.S. Department of Labor, Form LM-2 Labor Organization Annual Report, November 25, 2015, The NEA’s file number is 000-342.

58 You can research their lobby and influence spending at

60 For budget information, see the organization’s Internal Revenue Service, Form 990. For the lobbying guide, see

62 Afterschool Alliance, “What is the Afterschool Alliance?” Accessed April 18, 2016.

63 U.S. Department of Education, “The Federal Role in Education,” Accessed December 11, 2014.

64 U.S. Department of Education, “The Federal Role in Education,” Accessed December 11, 2014.

65 Ronald Reagan, Executive Order 12612, October 26, 1987,

66 Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, “Measuring Up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study,” 2013,….


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