Neal McCluskey has updated an overview study on federal aid for K-12 education, which is posted at DownsizingGovernment.org. Neal reports that K-12 spending under the U.S. Department of Education and its predecessor agencies rose from $4.5 billion in 1965 to $40.2 billion in 2016, in constant 2016 dollars. He notes that the department funds more than 100 subsidy programs, and each comes with regulations extending federal control over local schools.
Over the years, the states have been happy to receive federal funds, but they have chafed under the mandates imposed by Washington. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act provoked a backlash because of its costly rules for academic standards, student testing, and unrealistic proficiency demands. Neal argues that the new Ensuring Student Success Act of 2016 may have reduced some aspects of top-down control, but we won’t know for sure until all the regulations have been written.
Despite large increases in federal aid since the 1960s, public school performance has not improved much, if at all. Reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 17-year-olds have been stagnant. In addition, America’s performance on international tests has remained mediocre, yet we spend more per-pupil on K-12 education than most countries.
Neal concludes that federal funding and mandates are not the way to create high-quality K-12 education. He notes that Canada has an advanced economy, yet it has no federal department of education. Public education in Canada is almost solely a concern of provincial and local governments. That decentralized approach has resulted in substantial experimentation and innovation, including school vouchers, charter schools, and competing public schools. International comparison tests show that Canadian kids generally outperform American kids in reading, mathematics, and science.
Neal is right that Congress should phase out federal funding for K-12 education and end all related regulations. Federal aid is ultimately funded by the taxpayers who live in the 50 states, and thus it provides no free lunch. Indeed, the states just get money back with strings attached, while losing billions of dollars from wasteful bureaucracy. There is no advantage in federal manipulation of K-12 education, and our school systems would be better off without it.