Commentary

Feds Should Flunk out of Education

If there’s one thing the 2010 elections made clear, it’s that voters want a smaller, cheaper, more effective federal government. A terrific place to start giving them that is education. Washington meddles in our schools without constitutional authority to do so, and, as newly released test scores illustrate, without making things any better.

The scores in question are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.” More specifically, they are reading and mathematics scores for 12th-graders — our schools’ “final products” — and they reveal federal failure on at least two levels.

[I]t seems that the time has come to start pulling Washington out of education.”

First, there are the scores themselves. In reading, they were slightly lower than in 1998 or 1992, and they are part of an overall trend of almost pure stagnation. In mathematics, there was a tiny uptick from 2005-09 and … that was it. The NAEP framework for math was changed so drastically from 2002-05 that no pre-2005 scores were comparable, making no meaningful trend discernable. Nonetheless, the NAEP press release touted gains for math and reading.

So our latest federal test results show stagnation in reading, and for all practical purposes nothing in math. The federal government has neither improved outcomes on its own metric, nor kept its metric very useful.

To be fair, there are lots of NAEP tests, including a long-term mathematics assessment that tracks achievement consistently since the early 1970s. Only the so-called “main” math NAEP is hobbled right now. The long-term test, though, confirms the big point: There’s been essentially no change in high school math achievement for the last nearly four decades.

It hasn’t been for a lack of spending or legislating.

According to the federal Digest of Education Statistics, in 1970 Washington spent an inflation-adjusted $32 billion on elementary and secondary education. In 2009, the feds blew an estimated $83 billion — about a 160 percent increase. On a per-pupil basis, the Digest reports an inflation-adjusted rise from $435 in 1970 to $1,015 in 2006 (the latest year with per-pupil data).

Of course, Washington hasn’t just spent money. It’s increasingly demanded more standards, testing, and “accountability.” The No Child Left Behind Act is the apogee of that, as well as a terrific example of federal failure. While it’s impossible to ascribe results completely to NCLB, we know for sure that scores haven’t improved under the law. High school reading results were slightly higher before NCLB than after according to the most recent NAEP scores, and the long-term trend shows math achievement a wee bit higher before the law.

Why does Washington fail? In part because actual educational success hasn’t mattered that much. On the assumption that it would translate into better results, well-intentioned voters have generally supported politicians who have promised to spend more money and make schools “accountable.”

The problem is that politicians say lots of things, and, unlike when you pay more for a car to get better safety or mileage, when politicians spend money it’s often not to get better education. No, it’s to curry favor with teacher unions, administrator associations or other special interests whose members get paid with increased federal funding and will raise hell for politicians who don’t push it. So spending goes up, up, up, but achievement stays down, down, down.

Perhaps, though, the public has finally wised up. It certainly has when it comes to the overall size of government: According to Nov. 2 exit polls, 56 percent of voters think “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” Only 38 percent feel “government should do more to solve problems.”

There isn’t such exit polling data for education, but other bits of information suggest that the sentiment applies there, too. For instance, several victorious Tea Party-type candidates such as Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have spoken explicitly about eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. And the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on attitudes about public schooling revealed that a sizable majority of Americans think education should remain primarily a state and local function.

In light of all this, it seems that the time has come to start pulling Washington out of education. Not only might the political stars have aligned, but we have fresh new evidence that the federal government is an educational failure.

Neal P. McCluskey is the associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute and the author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples and Compromises American Education.