Robert Enlow: The best way for the feds to help schools? Get out of the way

Robert Enlow

Robert Enlow

States’ relationship with the federal government in education is like Gollum’s connection with the One Ring in “The Lord of the Rings”: They loves it, and they hates it. States either can “abide with the great pain” and continue with stagnating outcomes, or they can free themselves, their educators, and their families and achieve better academic results.

In 1966, through the adoption of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government provided $2 billion for public education (using 2006 dollars). In 2005, that number increased to $25 billion. In 2010, total federal spending on K-12 education reached $47 billion. And in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act alone, the feds dedicated $100 billion to public education.redefinED-at-RNC-logo-snipped-300x148

This “free” money is what the states love. Who doesn’t love free stuff? But, as Milton Friedman so wisely said, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. With those federal funds come regulations on educators, debt for future generations and significant questions of whether those federal funds are spent on effective programs.

First, the regulations, which states and localities really hate: In 2007, Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg reported that although the federal government provided just 7 percent of overall funding for public education, it was responsible for 41 percent of the administrative burden placed on states. Those regulations inhibit educators, especially rural ones in small schools, from doing their jobs effectively. And they inhibit the ability of state education departments to be as effective and efficient as possible. According to the Heritage Foundation:

“After the passage of No Child Left Behind (an update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), several states released calculations comparing the administrative cost of compliance to the amount of federal money they receive under the law. In 2005, the Connecticut State Department of Education found, for example, that Connecticut received $70.6 million through Title I of NCLB but had to spend $112.2 million in implementation and administrative costs.”

The federal government’s involvement in education also is placing a burden on the unborn. The United States is broke! It is nearly $16 trillion in debt. Federal education funds expended to states are borrowed. That, along with the federal government’s other “investments,” is unsustainable and must be curbed.

Finally, there is a wealth of data that suggests federal spending on programs like Title I are not working to improve outcomes for children, particularly those children that need the most help.

What have American schools gained from federal regulations and debt? In terms of results, very little. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show a history of flat-lined, stagnant education outcomes. In 1971, the average score for eighth graders on NAEP’s reading exam was 255 (on a 500-point scale). In 2011, that number stood at 265. For fourth graders over that same time period, the average score bumped from 208 to 221. Doesn’t $45 billion for a 10-point-plus gain seem just a little pricey?

If the federal government wants to make a lasting impact on American education, here’s how it can do it: Get out of the way of states and quit adding to the problem it helped create. Those closest to the children know what is in their best interests. In education, that hierarchy starts with a child’s parents or guardians and extends next to teachers and principals – way down the list are the bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, D.C.

The best way to empower families and educators is school choice, which 21 states and the nation’s capital now employ in some form. On top of that, states are expanding online learning and charter schools. Point being, states are concluding what needs to happen to raise student achievement. The federal government should see that, respect that, and graciously agree to let those who are closest to the children make decisions. At the same time, there is a role for the federal government in education, but a limited role. They should provide non-intrusive oversight of schooling and ensure that rules regarding safety, disability and non-discrimination are followed.

To that end, states need not throw the federal government into Mount Doom’s abyss, as the protagonists did with the One Ring in “The Lord of the Rings.” But if state and local leaders don’t challenge the feds in education and in other matters, that may be where our entire country ends up.

Robert C. Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

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