Commentary

The Department of Education: An Anti-Celebration

By Darcy Ann Olsen
May 4, 2000
The 17th-century English clergyman Thomas Fuller once remarked, “We are born crying, live complaining, and die disappointed.” Today, May 4, as historians mark the 20th anniversary of the federal Department of Education, Fuller’s observation would make a fitting epitaph.

Not that the end of the department is expected any time soon. Both presidential front-runners are clamoring for a larger federal role in education. Vice President Al Gore would saturate the department with $115 billion in new spending and add universal preschool to its collection of more than 175 programs — Bush would increase spending less than Gore, but would have Washington’s bureaucrats dictate everything from achievement tests to core curriculum.

Both candidates believe that a stronger department will help American students. Given its 20-year record, that’s clearly wishful thinking. If the department had improved American education, shouldn’t there be some measurable indication of that improvement?

There’s not. As measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered over the past two decades, high schoolers’ reading scores have climbed only one point, from 286 to 287 out of 500; writing scores fell from 290 to 283; and mathematics scores rose slightly from 299 to 307. All told, American taxpayers have pumped $550 billion through the department for no tangible benefit.

To be fair, the department’s budget constitutes only about 6 percent of total education spending. And many programs are narrowly targeted so their efficacy might be better judged on a case-by-case basis. Yet independent reviews of the department’s largest and most popular programs also show a pattern of failure. Title I, the costliest program at $8 billion annually, aims to close the gap in achievement between low-income students and their peers by subsidizing poor school districts. But the Department of Education’s own studies show that Title I has been unable to narrow, let alone close, the achievement gap. Other well-intentioned programs, including Bilingual Education and Safe and Drug-Free Schools, have been equally disappointing.

If money could solve the problems of American schools, surely it would have begun to do so by now. From 1980 to 1999, the price tag for a public school education adjusted for inflation rose from roughly $5,000 to $8,000 per child, an increase of 60 percent. During the same period, student scores on a range of tests remained flat or increased by a paltry one or two percentage points. Even with the modest increases, ACT and SAT scores are still significantly lower than they were 10 years before the Department of Education was established, when spending was only $4,200 per pupil. Defenders of the status quo argue that expectations for schools are too high — schools can’t be expected to compensate for poor parenting, and some students will always fail. Although there is undoubtedly some truth to those sentiments, there is substantial evidence that even children at high risk of failure can be helped by the right reforms.

For example, since 1990 nearly 100 public and private scholarship programs have given children from low-income families the chance to trade in their government education for a private one, resulting in significant, measurable gains on achievement tests. Those gains appear in both privately sponsored programs like the Washington Scholarship Fund in Washington, D.C., and publicly sponsored programs like those in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Parents couldn’t be happier with their new schools. A Harvard University study of Parents Advancing Choice in Education, a private program in Dayton, Ohio, investigated parental satisfaction on a wide range of matters including student respect for teachers, teacher respect for students, teacher communication with parents, moral values, safety, discipline and academic quality. On every measure, these parents were more satisfied than parents of students in government schools. Similar sentiments have been echoed by parents in choice programs in San Antonio, Indianapolis and Cleveland.

Politicians aren’t educators. Parents aren’t either, but they have proven better than politicians when it comes to picking schools. Perhaps because parents are concerned only with their children’s well-being and are unburdened by political considerations, they have the good sense not to throw money at programs and schools that don’t work. Parents don’t need a department of bureaucrats to “serve as a national clearinghouse of good ideas,” as the department boasts.

Instead of debating how much more money taxpayers should funnel into the Department of Education, or what combination of carrots and sticks might tempt government schools out of their lethargy, Congress should simply end federal involvement in education and return the department’s budget to the American people in the form of a tax cut. To paraphrase Fuller, the department of education was born crying, lived complaining, and has been nothing if not disappointing. Congress should lay it to rest.

Darcy A. Olsen is director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute.