How Congress Can Ensure That More Education Dollars Reach the Classroom

Report Education

How Congress Can Ensure That More Education Dollars Reach the Classroom

October 9, 1997 4 min read Download Report
Christine Olson

We cannot ask the American people to spend more on education until we do a better job with the money we've got now.

--President Bill Clinton,
Speech to National Governors' Association,
March 27, 1996

Congress should make sure that the federal government spends its scarce education resources only on programs that produce measurable results in the classroom most efficiently and effectively. For its part, the U.S. Department of Education should provide Congress with specific information about where its funds are going and how its programs are improving academic achievement. The percentage of education dollars reaching the classroom and being spent directly on students will increase only if Congress implements measures to eliminate ineffective programs and inefficient bureaucracy.

To promote the federal education bureaucracy's accountability to parents and taxpayers, Representative Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) and 76 cosponsors have introduced H. Res. 139, the Dollars to the Classroom Resolution. As federal policy, this resolution offers Congress the opportunity to take an important first step toward ensuring that all federal education programs are improving the education of America's children. Specifically, H. Res. 139 calls on Congress, the Department of Education, and state and local school districts to:

"determine the extent to which Federal elementary and secondary education dollars are currently reaching the classroom";

"work together to remove barriers that currently prevent a greater percentage of funds from reaching the classroom"; and

"work toward the goal that at least 90 percent of the United States Department of Education elementary and secondary education program funds will ultimately reach classrooms, when feasible and consistent with applicable law."

Determining How Dollars Are Spent
The Dollars to the Classroom Resolution would help provide the information Congress, the states, and taxpayers need to determine whether federal education programs function efficiently and effectively in helping children to learn. This information would provide solid answers to several key questions:

What portion of every federal dollar reaches the classroom, and what portion is spent on administration?
At the present time, the U.S. Department of Education is not required to collect data on what happens to federal education dollars once they reach local school districts. Education is--and should remain--primarily a state and local responsibility; however, when Congress allocates federal tax dollars to education programs, it should know, at the very least, what percentage will be consumed by administration and will not reach the classroom.

How much are states and local school districts spending to receive federal dollars and to comply with federal regulations and requirements?
States and local school districts generally do not track the cost involved in receiving federal education program dollars. The regulatory and bureaucratic burdens that federal education programs impose on school districts are evident in the number of paperwork hours needed to apply for and accept federal dollars and comply with requirements. Although the U.S. Department of Education recently reduced its total paperwork burden by 10 percent, it estimates that it still takes approximately 48.6 million paperwork hours--the equivalent of almost 25,000 employees working 40 hours a week for a full year--to complete the total paperwork involved. At the state level, Ohio calculated in 1990 that over 50 percent of its paperwork burden was related to federal education programs, even though only 5 percent of its education revenues came from federal sources.

What measurable impact do these programs have on academic achievement?
Most program evaluations concentrate on efficiency questions, not on whether programs have brought about actual and measurable improvement in student achievement.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Education is not required to collect adequate data to answer these kinds of questions. A few studies address related information, however, and their findings underscore the need for Congress to take action. For example, a 1996 Heritage Foundation study of federal spending on elementary and secondary education found that about 85 cents of every education tax dollar sent to Washington, D.C., is sent to the school districts. According to the U.S. Department of Education, of the more than $15 billion allocated to its elementary and secondary education programs in 1996, over $3 billion went for purposes--including administrative overhead and university, state, and national programs of unknown effectiveness--other than the needs of local school districts. But these numbers reveal only the portion of federal dollars that reaches the school districts, which still are several layers of bureaucracy away from classrooms. Little is known about what happens to federal dollars once they reach the districts. Few school districts, parents, and taxpayers have accurate data with which to determine how many cents on the dollar reach their classrooms. H. Res. 139, the Dollars to the Classroom Resolution, is a good first step toward filling this need.

To get an idea of just how little gets from school districts into the classroom, Congress can look at data recently released by New York City's public schools revealing that only 43 percent of the city's total education funds was used for direct classroom expenditures. If the numbers from New York City's public school system are any indication of how much federal money reaches classrooms nationwide, the need to find out what schools receive from the U.S. Department of Education and how their students are benefiting is even greater.

Forging Better Policy for Federal Education Dollars
Members of Congress need more information if they are to forge a new federal policy promoting measurable results in the classroom. Congress and taxpayers should be able to determine how schools and students benefit from federal education programs. By eliminating inefficient levels of bureaucracy and ineffective federal programs, Congress can be more accurate in targeting existing federal education dollars to programs that improve classroom achievement. The policies embodied in H. Res. 139 offer Congress a first important step toward accomplishing what President Clinton describes as doing a "better job with the money we've got now."


Christine Olson