A Lesson in Waste: Where Does All the Federal Education Money Go?

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Since the 1965 passage of the Elementary andSecondary Education Act, which concentratedunprecedented authority over American educationin the hands of the federal government, federallawmakers have passed increasingly restrictivelaws and drastically escalated educationspending, which ballooned from around $25 billionin 1965 (adjusted for inflation) to morethan $108 billion in 2002.

For many years that phenomenon appearedto be of little concern at the state and local level.Under the No Child Left Behind Act, however,that seems to be changing—citizens and policymakersare aggravated by the law's dictates, anda revolt against federal control of education isbrewing. Of course, states can refuse their shareof billions of federal education dollars and therebyavoid having to adhere to federal regulations,but turning down the money is difficult, especiallysince the federal government took themoney out of state taxpayers' pockets in the firstplace.

And it's not just state unrest that's callingfederal control of education into question:Despite the huge infusion of federal cash and thenear tripling of overall per pupil funding since1965, national academic performance has notimproved. Math and reading scores have stagnated,graduation rates have flatlined, andresearchers have shown numerous billion-dollarfederal programs to be failures.

Both state unrest and academic failure necessitatean examination of federal spending oneducation. States must decide if the benefits offederal funding outweigh the costs of complyingwith federal rules, and the nation as a wholemust determine if the federal presence inAmerican education should continue at all.

The answers, fortunately, are not elusive. Evenwhen projects are measured against theDepartment of Education's own mission statement,it is clear that federal dollars are going toprojects that should not be receiving them. Moreimportant, when evaluated using academicresults, the strictures of the Constitution, andplain common sense, almost no federal fundingis justified. For all those reasons, the federal governmentshould withdraw from its involvementin education and return control to parents, localgovernments, and the states.

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.