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When Ronald Reagan arrived in the White House in 1981, one of his first acts was to dismantle 42 federal categorical aid programs run by the U.S. Department of Education. His massive overhaul of elementary and secondary education programs was approved by a Democrat-controlled Congress.
Under Reagan’s plan, which I helped implement while serving as the Region Eight administrator for the U.S. Department of Education, 42 programs were rolled into one block grant, and states were given great flexibility in spending the federal funds. The federal education agency was downsized by over 400 employees because states and local school districts were now making those funding decisions, not federal bureaucrats.
Under the Obama regime, new programs have multiplied while failed federal reforms like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are propped up instead of being abandoned. The old maxim that no federal program ever dies is as true in education as in agriculture, housing, or federal land management.
When congressional Democrats and Republicans were unable to agree on terms for reauthorizing the $25 billion NCLB program in 2012, Obama announced he would simply continue the program by administrative decree. To accommodate state critics of NCLB, states are given waivers from the most onerous provisions of the law – such as the impossible-to-achieve proficiency targets – if they “voluntarily” agree to follow certain steps and guidelines.
Obama’s use of NCLB funds to compel state adoption of federal education policies is one more step in the process of transforming state education agencies into mere appendages of the federal government. Until Congress acts to actually rewrite NCLB, states that want those federal dollars are under the thumb of Obama’s appointees in the U.S. Department of Education.
Anyone who thinks Obama’s minions in the federal education agency are more benign or less partisan than his appointed agents at the IRS, EPA or the Department of Justice are naïve. Just like the EPA, IRS, DOJ and every other federal agency, Obama’s progressive appointees at the Department of Education have an agenda, and make no mistake, federal dollars are being used as leverage to drive that agenda.
What is the progressive agenda in education? Here’s a hint: Obama’s education agenda is remarkably similar to that of the teachers unions, an agenda that does not include school choice, independent charter schools, higher academic standards, merit pay for teachers, support for homeschooling, or balanced civics instruction for students – who are now being registered to vote at age 16 in some states.
On average, local school districts get only 10 percent of their total funding from the federal government, but some districts get a lot more based on the low incomes of parents. Federal spending on education grew from $11.6 billion in 1981 to over $67 billion in 2009, and the federal dollars aimed at supplementing K-12 school funding in low-income districts has more than tripled in constant dollars.
One reason the increased spending has not achieved much improvement in student achievement is the high administrative costs. In most school districts, less than 65 cents of each education dollar is spent on classroom instruction, even by the most generous accounting.
Thus, despite this massive federal expenditure to supplement state and local school funding in poorer school districts, academic achievement by students from low-income families continues to lag as measured by standardized tests. A recent federal report demonstrated that even the popular Head Start program does not produce lasting results: Any differences in student test scores vanish after the third grade.
The answer from the teachers unions and the progressive left? Abolish standardized tests! They “stigmatize” young people at an early age. Let’s hide the real problem but continue to fund the same failed federal programs.
Almost without exception, the good ideas generated over the past 30 years for promoting excellence in education have come from parents, innovative school principals and local school officials – in other words, from the people who have the biggest stake in educational achievement by their students.
Let’s stop allowing the federal government to dictate the pace and direction of education reform and allow states and local school boards – and parents! – more freedom to choose the education programs with the best chance of success. And let’s require federal dollars to support those local initiatives and parental choices, not hamper them.
Yes, there is a role for the federal government, but it’s not more billions for programs run out of Washington, D.C. It begins with deregulation and fewer strings on the use of federal funds. Governors and state lawmakers ought to become strident advocates for federal reforms that move federal funding in that direction. For example, the billions of federal Title I funds within No Child Left Behind could be made portable to follow the child to private schools as part of a school voucher program empowering parents.
The federal government’s role in K-12 education needs to be scaled back dramatically and redirected to become more of a junior partner. Innovation and true education reform will blossom if Washington’s bureaucrats and “progressive modernizers” will step back and allow states to carry out their constitutional responsibilities for K-12 education.
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