February 24, 1999 | Backgrounder on Education
Federal spending on education is fast becoming a reverse political "third rail." Rather than being an issue that politicians cannot touch--as Social Security was until recently--education spending is the issue that every politician feels compelled to embrace. And the level of spending proposed is now the measure of a lawmaker's commitment to America's children.
President Bill Clinton recently called for a $1.2 billion increase in federal education spending, to $34.7 billion next year. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) has upped the President's bid by calling for a $40 billion increase over five years. Besides siphoning off money that should be used for tax cuts, saving Social Security, or other pressing needs, this race by federal lawmakers to outspend each other ignores the simple fact that the key to improving education is not how much money is spent, but how it is spent. Moreover, the evidence shows that Washington has little idea of how to spend it wisely. Consider:
The latest American Legislative Exchange Council Report Card on American Education underscores this conclusion.2 Typical was New Jersey, which had the highest per-pupil expenditure ($10,241) in the 1996-1997 school year and the second smallest pupil-to-teacher ratio. New Jersey received nearly 50 percent of its public education funding from federal sources, yet its students ranked 39th on the 1998 Scholastic Aptitude Test. Conversely, Minnesota, which ranked 27th in per-pupil spending ($5,826), received the highest ranking in student achievement on the same test.
Congress hopefully will not repeat its "don't ask, just spend" approach again this year when it reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Despite over $118 billion spent on Title I of ESEA since 1965, there is little evidence of any significant positive effect. The first longitudinal study of Title I, released in 1984, revealed that the $40 billion in federal aid spent to help millions of poor children over two decades had done little to boost achievement.4 Although the students' scores initially improved at a slightly faster rate than those of their peers, the improvement disappeared by the time these students reached junior high school. A later longitudinal study of the program found that little had changed, despite an additional $78 billion spent from 1984 through 1997.5
Given the lackluster experience of
education programs, commencing a discussion of federal policy with a bidding contest over spending makes no sense. It also draws attention away from what needs to be done to ensure that current federal spending is conducted more wisely. Rather than earmark even more tax revenues for education programs that fail or have not been held accountable for positive results, Congress should do three things:
Congress can give immediate meaning to this principle by sharply broadening state access to the federal Ed-Flex program under the Education Flexibility Partnership Demonstration Act of 1994.7 Ed-Flex currently gives some 12 states greater freedom from certain federal
regulations in the use of federal aid as long as program goals are met. Senators William Frist (R-TN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have introduced a bill, S. 280, to expand the Ed-Flex program to include all 50 states. With the upcoming re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Goals 2000, Members should consider allowing all interested states the maximum flexibility to administer most federal funds (in ESEA and other federal programs) on the programs that are best suited to their needs.
As a condition of this greater flexibility, however, states should have to agree to a method of evaluating the success (or otherwise) of their alternative uses of the federal funds. Just as in welfare reform, this flexibility to innovate should be accompanied by a contract between each state and the federal government that specifies methods to evaluate the impact of state reforms on academic achievement.
Congress also could help parents invest in their children by reducing the barriers they face if they want either to exercise greater control over how funds are spent on their children or to supplement these funds with their own money. For instance, giving eligible parents the right to spend Title I funds at a private or public school of their choice, and to supplement the funds themselves if they wished, would empower them to seek the best possible education for their children.
President Clinton has raised the right issue in education--accountability. Regrettably, however, he seems to think of accountability more as an accountant would ("Is the money being spent in the ways intended?") than as a parent does ("Is the money causing good results for my child?").
Moreover, the President and some congressional leaders seem to think that the solution to the problem of falling academic scores is to spend more on programs, regardless of whether they are failing or have never been evaluated properly. It is time for lawmakers to demand real accountability and not allow themselves to slip into a competition over who can spend the most on education this session.
Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D., is Vice President of Domestic and Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
3. U.S. General Accounting Office, Head Start: Research Provides Little Information on Impact of Current Program, GAO/HEHS-97-59, April 15, 1997. See also Nina H. Shokraii and Patrick F. Fagan, "After 33 Years and $30 Billion, Time to Find Out If Head Start Produces Results," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1202, July 15, 1998.
6. Maris A. Vinovskis, "Reconsidering Federal Education Research: An Historical and Policy Analysis of the R&D Centers, Regional Laboratories, and the `New' OERI," Preliminary Draft, February 1999. See also Nina H. Shokraii, "Why Congress Should Overhaul the Federal Regional Education Laboratories," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1200, July 2, 1998.