Book Review: FAILURE : The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children

Published July 8, 2016

In this well-researched history of American education, author Vicki Alger traces the growth of the federal government’s role in education, which was never granted anywhere in our constitution, but has been a contentious issue since our nation’s founding.

Alger notes that Presidents Washington and Jefferson spoke against federal education, and traces more than 200 years of debate and manipulation which finally lead us to a decline in public education quality.

In 1865, the Wisconsin Teachers Association stated, “Children are the property of the state.” It was a relatively small step to decide that states could not be trusted to fulfill responsibilities for education, and that national oversight would be required, though it took a full century to achieve. Alger summarizes the decades of debate where dissenters put forth the best arguments.

Alger categorizes every program in the current Department of Education (established under President Carter) and their many failures, and offers a plan for positive change, beginning with eliminating the department (which President Reagan attempted but failed to do), returning everything to state control, and eliminating Common Core and the department’s thousands of employees and billions of wasted dollars.

In spite of 50 years of increased funding and layers of regulations in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), nothing has been accomplished for low-achieving, low-income students. Herbert J. Walberg, Chairman of The Heartland Institute’s Board of Directors and an eminent education scholar, said of our education system, “American schools are among the most costly in the world, yet U.S. students are among the most mediocre achievers in math and science.” Alger explains why and how it can be remedied by moving forward with school choice and competition.  Nations that favor this approach lead the world in education.

Alger describes the Bush and Obama years of the Race to The Top and No Child Left Behind programs, both of which failed miserably. Despite these programs failing, each administration did what government does best: heap more money on them. They also used their failure to sneak the Common Core State Standards onto an unsuspecting public. Alger details the standards’ progress as a day-to-day diary, but lays Common Core’s failure and imposition at the hands of Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said, “If we accomplish one thing in the coming years, it should  be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America…  We are all part of one system of learning.”

Ze’ev Wurman, former U.S. Department of Education official, said Common Core standards were mediocre and in no way to be considered a proper preparation for college. What Alger proves conclusively through her research is that it has been Obama’s plan from the beginning to control the education of all American children.

When the enabling legislation creating the U.S. Department of Education was passed, proponents put forth five main purposes that the new department would serve. They included:

1.     Supplement, not supplant, state and local government.

2.     Secure education’s status as a national priority.

3.     provide better management of federal education programs.

4.     Consolidate federal education programs to improve efficiency.

5.     Improve educational quality.

Alger proceeds to prove that none of these purposes were ever achieved.

One of the best chapters of the book is titled, “American Students on the International Stage.” When one realizes the many splendid educational models presented by other countries which we could have followed, it is frustrating to recognize how poorly we have competed. Alger analyzes every possible reason for the poor U.S. performance compared to other countries easily. Alger also includes excellent charts and graphs to support her conclusions and explains that in most successful countries parental choice plays a large role.

Alger’s review reveals student success around the world has little or nothing to do with national ministries or departments of education. Decreasing centralization and increasing competition has proven to be a winning strategy for top performing countries across the globe.

In the final section of the book, Alger sets the stage with what is to come with a chapter titled, “Ending, not Mending, Federal Involvement in Education,” then follows it with a chapter called, “Dismantling the Department  of Education Brick by Brick?” Alger says restoring constitutional authority over education requires a genuine abolition plan including three steps: eliminate all 19 separate offices in the department with their own staffs and budgets, return the savings to the states to help them with their programs, and allow the states to determine what if any federal programs they wish to continue at the state level.

When you read the budgets and structure of each of the separate offices within the department of education, you will marvel at how the American taxpayer has been bilked of its money, not for good, but in fact for dubious, duplicitous causes.

In the final chapters of this outstanding book, Alger lays out a blueprint for the next 30 years to achieve the excellence in education we owe to generations to follow. This can be achieved if members of the nation’s next administration read this book.

Jay Lehr is The Heartland Institute’s science director.