December 9, 2008 | Special Report on Education
We need a new vision for a 21st century education--one where we aren't just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation; where we're not just investing more money, but demanding more reform; where parents take responsibility for their children's success; where our schools and government are accountable for results; where we're recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of new teachers, and students are excited to learn because they're attending schools of the future; and where we expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to graduate college and get a good paying job.
--Barack Obama, Dayton, Ohio, September 9, 2008
We cannot be satisfied until every child in America--I mean every child--has the same chance for a good education that we want for our own children.
--Barack Obama, Flint, Michigan, June 16, 2008
President-elect Obama, your comments during the campaign show that you recognize the urgent need to transform and improve American education for the 21st century. American students' reading scores have remained relatively flat since 1970. In 2007, 33 percent of fourth graders and 26 percent of eighth graders scored "below basic" in reading. Millions of children are not receiving a quality education in American schools. In many of the nation's largest cities, less than half of all children are graduating high school. Nationally, on both test scores and graduation rates, an achievement gap still separates disadvantaged and ethnic minority children from their affluent and non-minority peers.
The pervasive failure in American education imposes personal and societal costs. Children who do not receive a quality education are less able to lead happy and productive lives and realize their potential. As a nation, this poor performance imposes costs on our society and even threatens our future economic prosperity and national security.
Moreover, the crisis in American education persists despite decades of increasing federal intervention and taxpayer funding. Since 1985, combined federal spending on K-12 education has increased by 138 percent (adjusted for inflation). Nationally, American taxpayers spend roughly $9,300 annually on each child enrolled in public school--double what was spent in 1970 after adjusting for inflation.
Regrettably, the federal government's current system for funding and regulating elementary and secondary education is not designed to spur the transformation that is needed to improve American schools. The Department of Education's budgets include dozens of ineffective or unnecessary programs. Major federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB)--similar to previous versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)--have demonstrated the limits and potential dangers that are inherent in the overextension of federal policymaking authority.
In other areas, federal programs have failed to accomplish their intended policy goals. For postsecondary education, years of ever-increasing federal subsidies for higher education have failed to make college more affordable, since colleges continue to increase costs. In early childhood education, federal programs in operation since the 1960s such as Head Start have failed to deliver lasting benefits for participating low-income children.
Many in Congress are now proposing that the federal government intervene to address a range of problems in education by creating new programs and federal subsidies, including public school infrastructure and construction, funding for runaway college tuition costs, and the costs of early childhood education. Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past, you can exercise leadership and deliver on your campaign promises by embracing a new approach for federal policy to improve American education.
Any new efforts should recognize the limits of federal intervention and empower those who are able to make a difference in children's education, especially parents. Specifically, your Administration should pursue the following actions:
You were right to say during your campaign that "we cannot be satisfied until every child in America...has the same chance for a good education that we want for our own children." But four decades of experience with increasing federal involvement has shown that Washington cannot deliver on that promise. Instead of further expanding federal authority in education, your Administration should empower those who have more power to make a difference in children's education, especially parents.
Dan Lips is Senior Policy Analyst in Education in the Domestic Policy Studies Department, and Jennifer A. Marshall is Director of Domestic Policy Studies and Director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, at The Heritage Foundation.
Remarks of Senator Barack Obama, "A New Vision for a 21st Century
Education," Dayton, Ohio, September 9, 2008, at http://my.barackobama.com
/page/community/post/amandascott/gG5pB4 (December 5, 2008).
Remarks of Senator Barack Obama, "Renewing American
Competitiveness," Flint, Michigan, June 16, 2008, at http://www.barackobama.
com/2008/06/16/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_79.php (December 5, 2008).
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, "Trends in
Average Reading Scale Scores for Students Ages 9, 13, and 17:
1971-2004," at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/nat-reading-
scalescore.asp (December 3, 2008).
 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, "2007 NAEP Reading Report Card," at http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2007/r0001.asp (December 3, 2008).
 Christopher B. Swanson, "Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation," Education Research Center, April 1, 2008.
 See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, "The Nation's Report Card," at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ (December 3, 2008).
 For a discussion of these costs, see Dan Lips, "A Nation Still at Risk: The Case for Federalism and School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2125, April 21, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg2125.cfm .
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
Statistics, "Digest of Education Statistics 2007," Table 174, at
programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_a174.asp (December 2, 2008).
 For more information, see Dan Lips, "Reforming No Child Left Behind by Allowing States to Opt Out: An A-PLUS for Federalism," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2044, June 19, 2007, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg2044.cfm .
 For more information, see Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg, "The Administrative Burden of No Child Left Behind," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1406, March 23, 2007, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/wm1406.cfm, and Eugene Hickok and Matthew Ladner, "Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind: Federal Management or Citizen Ownership of K-12 Education," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2047, June 27, 2007, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg2047.cfm .
 For more information, see Susan L. Aud, "A Closer Look at Title I: Making Education for the Disadvantaged More Student-Centered," Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 15, June 28, 2007, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/sr15.cfm .
U.S. Department of Education, Fiscal Year 2009 Budget
Summary--February 4, 2008, "Section III. Programs Proposed for
Elimination," at http://www.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget09/summary/edlite-
section3.html (December 3, 2008).
Office of Management and Budget, "List of Bureaus for the
Department of Education," at http://earmarks.omb.gov/2008-appropriations-by-
agency/agency_title/_summary.html (December 3, 2008).
 For more information, see Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg, "Improving Education in the Nation's Capital: Expanding School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2137, May 14, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg2137.cfm .
 Shanea Watkins, "Safer Kids, Better Test Scores: The D.C. Voucher Program Works," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1965, June 20, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/wm1965.cfm .
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, "Head Start Program Fact Sheet: 2007 Fiscal Year," at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ohs/about/fy2008.html.
 Authors' calculations.
 Christine Kim, "Academic Success Begins at Home: How Children Can Succeed in School," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2185, September 22, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg2185.cfm .