Commentary

Public Choices

This article originally appeared in National Review Online on Sept. 6, 2005
It’s back-to-school time, and many of the adults trying to run American education have a lot to learn. They ought to start by memorizing a simple formula: increased federal funding leads to decreased educational flexibility, producing academic stagnation.

They definitely have not learned that lesson in Connecticut, where last month state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal launched the first-ever state lawsuit against the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), calling the Bush administration’s enforcement of the law “rigid, arbitrary and capricious.” Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell supports the suit and recently declared to a group of Connecticut teachers that rather than NCLB’s strict rules, “we want the leeway to let our schools perform.”

Connecticut’s problem is that it seems to want both more federal money and flexibility. “Our taxpayers are sagging under the crushing costs of local education,” Rell commented the day the lawsuit was announced. “What we don’t need is a new laundry list of things to do — with no new money to do them.”

The day after Connecticut filed its suit the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive Washington, D.C., think tank, released a report in which it too decried schools’ inflexibility but called for more federal funds.

The report, from CAP’s National Task Force on Public Education, starts off reasonably, arguing that a lot of our educational trouble can be attributed to the fact that “too much of our education system supports the status quo and a basic ‘one size fits all approach.’” Unfortunately, it soon contradicts itself, intoning that “tragically, the commitment to uniformity in expectations and standards for what students should be taught is not reflected in the K-12 education system.”

The result of this confused analysis is a proposal for the federal government to provide “leadership” and to spend at least $325 billion over ten years implementing numerous CAP-endorsed initiatives including universal pre-school and a “voluntary” national curriculum tied to expanded “national accountability measures.”

What both the Connecticut lawsuit and the CAP report demonstrate is the inability of policymakers to grasp history and understand that more federal money inevitably means more rules, and that neither of those things helps America’s schools.

Keep in mind that it was only in the last few decades, with passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, that the federal government became deeply involved in American education. Once it was in, though, its “investment” increased by leaps and bounds. According to the most recent inflation-adjusted data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal investment in education ballooned by nearly 400 percent between 1965 and 2003, and by more than 500 percent at the elementary and secondary level.

Federal meddling in education has grown with its funding. Over the last 40 years, despite the presence of a clause prohibiting federal control of education in almost all legislation passed in that time, as the federal government expended more money on the schools it heaped ever greater requirements onto the funds. Today its dictates are so extensive that Washington tells districts whether their teachers are qualified and their reading curriculum is acceptable, and requires schools to provide lessons on the Constitution every September 17, the anniversary of the signing of that once-respected document.

Despite this incredible growth in federal funding and “leadership,” academic achievement has largely stagnated. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress “Trends in Academic Progress” report reveals the sad truth. In 1971 seventeen-year-olds had an average score of 285 out of 500 points on the NAEP reading assessment. In 2004 the average wasn’t a single point higher. Nine-year-olds’ scores increased the most of any age group in reading, but their average only rose by slightly over 5 percent. Overall the improvements in math were higher, but were also nowhere near commensurate with federal spending increases.

What is critical for policymakers and voters to understand is that, contrary to Connecticut’s complaint, the federal government does not simply force states to do as they’re told. It buys compliance, attaching any and all requirements it wants schools to follow to the taxpayer money that states “voluntarily” accept. And, of course, the more money it supplies, the more rules and regulations it creates.

States aren’t going to be able to have it both ways. They can either take federal money and give up on flexibility, or they can demand flexibility by telling Washington to get out of the education business. What they can’t do is the impossible: fixing our “one size fits all” schools by demanding ever more federal dollars.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst with the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.