The U.S. Senate will soon render its advice and consent to the
nomination of Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan to be
secretary of education.
The word education is not mentioned in the Constitution,
and the federal government has historically played a limited role
in funding and regulating public education across the country. The
federal government currently provides only 9 percent of the funding
for K-12 public education in America.
But federal spending is at an all-time high. The federal
government currently spends $71 billion annually on K-12 education
programs. Through programs like No Child Left Behind, which has
seen funding increases of more than 40 percent during the Bush
Administration, the federal government now exerts greater authority
over public schools across the nation.
Unfortunately, more than 40 years of increasing federal
involvement in education has yielded little progress in improved
student learning. Historical measures of students' academic
achievement, such as the long-term National Assessment of
Educational Progress, have remained relatively flat even as federal
spending per-pupil has nearly tripped since the 1970s.
Millions of children continue to pass through the nation's public
schools without receiving a quality education. In many of our
nation's largest cities--including Mr. Duncan's Chicago school
district--barely half of all children graduate high school.
History has shown the limits of what the federal government can
and should do to improve education. But the new Administration has
a historic opportunity to transform the federal role in education
and, in the process, support reform at the state and local level to
ensure that all children have an opportunity to receive a quality
To evaluate whether Secretary-designate Duncan will support this
transformation, Senators should keep the following question in mind
as they consider his confirmation:
Question 1: The Appropriate Federal
Response to State Budget Challenges
The federal government is now being called upon to deliver a
massive "bailout" for states, localities, and school districts
facing budget shortfalls due to the current economic climate. Six
governors, for example, recently called on the federal government
to provide a $250 billion "rescue package" for education.
President-elect Obama has called for funds for education to be
included in his proposed emergency spending package. Do you
support a sharp increase in federal spending on education and a
federal "bailout" of state and local governments?
Answer: A federal bailout package for public school
systems is unnecessary for a number of reasons. First, states'
current budget shortfalls follow decades of state government
spending increases well ahead of inflation. Second, all levels of
government spending on public education have risen dramatically in
recent years. The average per-pupil expenditure in American public
schools has increased by 49 percent over the past 20 years after
adjusting for inflation. Importantly, consistent increases in
federal and state spending have failed to improve educational
performance. Third, a federal bailout of state and local
governments would only shift the burden to federal taxpayers.
A responsible alternative to a federal bailout would be to grant
states emergency regulatory relief and greater flexibility in the
use of funding provided through major federal education programs
like No Child Left Behind. This flexibility would relieve states of
the expensive burden of complying with federal programs
requirements and regulations and allow states to prioritize funding
and allocate resources to the most pressing needs.
Question 2: Reforming, Not Expanding,
the Federal Role in Education
Since the 1960s, the federal government's approach to education
has been to increase federal funding and to create new federal
programs. This strategy has failed to yield significant improvement
as judged by long-term measures of students' academic achievement.
In previous congressional testimony, you have called for reforming
No Child Left Behind to grant state and local school leaders
greater freedom and flexibility to innovate and implement reforms
that best meet students' needs. On the other hand, you have
called for a doubling in federal spending on No Child Left Behind.
Do you support reforming, not expanding, the federal role in
Answer: The right answer is yes. The strategy of
increasing federal funding and creating new programs has failed to
solve the problems in the nation's public schools. Major federal
education programs like No Child Left Behind should be reformed to
give states greater autonomy to end ineffective programs and
reallocate resources for state priorities while maintaining
academic accountability and transparency. This approach would allow
state policymakers--with greater input from parents and other
stakeholders--to take responsibility for strengthening public
education in local communities.
Question 3: Cutting Waste from the
Department of Education's Budget
During the campaign, President-elect Obama called for a review
of federal programs and the elimination of wasteful and ineffective
programs. The Department of Education's budget includes dozens of
programs that have proven to be ineffective, duplicative, or
unnecessary. Do you support reviewing the Education Department
budget and terminating unnecessary programs?
Answer: The federal government's Program Assessment
Rating Tool recently identified 47 programs in the Department of
Education's budget that were ineffective, unnecessary, or
duplicative. The projected budget savings from
terminating these programs is approximately $3.3 billion. Moreover,
the Office of Management and Budget reports that the 2008
Department of Education budget included 758 congressional earmarks
totaling $327 million in appropriations. The new Administration should
support terminating these programs and only approve a budget for
the Department of Education that does not include congressional
Question 4: Reforming Federal Early
Childhood Education Programs
President-elect Obama has called for a new federal program and a
significant funding increase for early childhood education.
However, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2005 that
there were 69 federal programs providing early childhood education
and care. The largest of these programs is Head
Start, which was funded at $6.9 billion in 2008 with a cost per
child served of approximately $7,500. Unfortunately, the nearly
$100 billion in taxpayer money used to fund the Head Start programs
has had limited impact and has not delivered on the promise of
significantly improving school readiness for disadvantaged
children. Considering this track record, do you support creating
a new federal preschool program?
Answer: The right answer is no. Rather than creating new
federal programs, policymakers should reform early childhood
education programs like Head Start. For example, Head Start should
be reformed to grant state policymakers greater flexibility to
integrate it with other state early childhood education programs
and develop new strategies to improve education and care for young
children. In addition, Head Start should be reformed to also allow
states to give families the ability to select an early childhood
provider of choice.
Question 5: Supporting Parental Choice
Like President-elect Obama, you had the opportunity to attend a
private school, the University of Chicago Laboratory School, as a
young student. Like Obama, this educational opportunity clearly
prepared you to succeed academically and professionally. Across the
nation, a policy debate continues over whether families should be
given the ability to use their child's share of public education
funding to pick a school of choice, be it a public, private, or
charter school. As education secretary, would you support the
principle that parents should be given the power to choose the
right school for their children?
Answer: The new secretary should join the growing numbers
of bipartisan supporters of school choice policies. Policies that
give parents the power to choose the best school for their children
have been shown to increase family satisfaction and involvement,
improve learning among participating students, and encourage
healthy competition and innovation in school systems.
Recognizing the federal government's limited authority in
education, the new Administration has the opportunity to encourage
greater parental choice in education in the following ways: First,
federal programs like No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act should be reformed to grant state
policymakers the opportunity to use federal funds to give parents
the ability to choose their children's school. Second, the federal
government should maintain and expand the D.C. Opportunity
Scholarship program to give more children in the nation's capital,
where the federal government has oversight authority, the power to
attend a school of their parents' choice. Third, and perhaps most
importantly, the leaders of the new Administration should use the
bully pulpit to urge lawmakers across the country to join the
growing bipartisan support for school choice.
Dan Lips is Senior Policy
Analyst in Education in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at
The Heritage Foundation.
For more information, see:
Dan Lips, "Federal Education Bailout Is Not the Answer,"
Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2171, December 12, 2008, at
Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips, "How 'No Child Left Behind'
Threatens Florida's Successful Education Reforms," Heritage
Foundation Backgrounder No. 2226, January 8, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg2226.cfm.
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.
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.
Christopher B. Swanson, Ph.D., "Cities in
Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation,"
Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, April 1, 2008.
Lips, Watkins, Fleming, "Does Spending More on
Education Improve Academic Achievement?"
Duncan, "Statement before the House Education and Labor Committee,
Subcommittee on Education Reform," August 28, 2006.
U.S. Government Accountability Office, "GAO Update on the Number of
Prekindergarten Care and Education Programs," letter to Senators
Enzi, Alexander, and Voinovich.