American Education, From Camelot to Obamaville

The president has relentlessly called for a more extensive—and expensive—federal role in education. Here’s just one example:

The human mind is our fundamental resource. A balanced Federal program must go well beyond incentives for investment in plant and equipment. It must include equally determined measures to invest in human beings—both in their basic education and training and in their more advanced preparation…. Without such measures, the Federal Government will not be carrying out its responsibilities for expanding the base of our economic… strength.

And if we spend all those new federal dollars on k-12 education, the president promised that “it will pay rich dividends in the years ahead.”

But here’s the strange part: in that same speech, the president made this seemingly ridiculous claim:

Our progress in education over the last generation has been substantial. We are educating a greater proportion of our youth to a higher degree of competency than any other country on earth.

It’s actually not so ridiculous when you learn that the president who said it was John F. Kennedy, in February of 1961. Back then, we really had been making educational progress.

Aside from the ill-fated National Defense Education Act of 1958, the federal government had made no attempt to improve k-12 academic achievement or attainment in the four decades before JFK… and yet, as he noted, American education did in fact improve during that period.

But within a couple of years of JFK’s assassination, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act. And in the four plus decades since, the feds have spent roughly $2 trillion trying to improve outcomes and attainment. Over that course of years, both graduation rates and academic achievement at the end of high school have been flat or declining.

Perhaps it could be argued that JFK couldn’t have known better. There was no history showing him what an expensive failure U.S. federal education spending would turn out to be. But the same cannot be said of President Obama, or of those in Congress who continue to tell the public, and presumably themselves, that fed ed. spending is a useful “investment.”

Today, we can look back at a half-century of failed federal education programs. We can think about how much better off the U.S. economy and our children would be if we hadn’t thrown $2 trillion at a calcified school monopoly that cannot spend money efficiently.

And reflecting on that history, perhaps we’ll find the wisdom not to repeat it.