Education Guns Fire Blanks in War on Poverty

A lot of federal weapons were created to fight President Lyndon Johnson’s ”War on Poverty,” and some of the biggest were in education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and Head Start are all parts of Johnson’s overall effort to end poverty and create a “Great Society.” They also share two other things in common: pretty damning evidence that they are failures, and Cato videos laying out the bad news.

The first video – which calls for the end of the U.S. Department of Education, but in so doing highlights ESEA and HEA programs – presents the big evidence of K-12 and higher ed failure: massive spending, stagnant test scores, and turbo-charged college tuition inflation. Of course, a lot of variables affect these things, but there is simply no compelling evidence of federal success. 

The second video is of Cato’s recent forum, “Preschool Education: What the Research Says.” While there is a great deal of debate about the effectiveness of preschool generally, there seems to be consensus that Head Start has few, if any, meaningful, lasting, positive effects. Yet not only do we stick with it, President Obama is pushing to expand federal preschool intervention, to the tune of $75 billion over ten years.

What keeps these misfiring, War on Poverty blunderbusses in service? Not their effectiveness, because, well, there is precious little evidence of any. Most likely, it is that it’s very compelling to “help” the young and poor with big programs, while it is cost prohibitive for the average American, with a full-time job and other interests, to research whether these programs actually help. Finally, for most politicians – where the public-sentiment rubber meets the public-policy road – the costs of appearing not to care are much too great to act on the powerful evidence that voters rarely see.

Hopefully, voters will see these videos.