Education Policy for the New Millennium

Published February 1, 1999

The members of the newly installed 106th Congress have been handed an historic opportunity to change the course of K-12 education, by changing the focus of federal education programs administered under the $13 billion-a-year Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which comes up for reauthorization this year.

If Congress does not use this occasion to reform education, warns a new Heritage Foundation study, precious education tax dollars will continue to be wasted on failed programs, and American students will continue falling behind their international counterparts.

The federal government’s current role in K-12 education, focused on inputs, should be refocused on academic achievement, argues Heritage education policy analyst Nina Shokraii Rees. That requires making sure that more federal education dollars actually reach the classroom; giving states, schools, and parents more flexibility in using those dollars; and encouraging innovation at the state level.

Since elected officials have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely and efficiently–not merely spent–Congress should look closely at the more than 60 percent of ESEA spending that flows into the Title I program, Aid to Disadvantaged Children. The government’s own studies of Title I, which has spent over $100 billion since its inception, show that the program has done little to boost educational achievement for poor children.

“The ESEA has done little to improve the quality of education,” says Rees. “In fact, no correlation can be drawn between ESEA programs or federal dollars spent on education and students’ academic outcomes.”

Opinion polls consistently place education as the public’s Number One concern, and a Pew Research Center poll conducted last fall reported almost nine of ten Americans think that improving the quality of public school education is “very important.”

The public’s desire for better public schools isn’t surprising in light of the well-publicized academic failures of American students:

  • Only 40 percent of inner city fourth- and eighth-graders could read at the basic level in National Assessment of Educational Progress tests;
  • In advanced physics, U.S. high school seniors finished last out of 20 other countries–including Latvia and the Czech Republic–in the recent Third International Math and Science Study.
  • The U.S.’s high school graduation rate is now the lowest of all developed countries, according to a November 1998 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

How can Congress refocus ESEA to improve education in America’s public schools? Rees suggests four strategies: sending dollars to the classroom; empowering parents, teachers, and principals; boosting teacher quality; and allowing flexibility but demanding accountability.

Send More Dollars to Classrooms

Too little money finds its way to classrooms, and too much goes to the bureaucracy required to administer federal and state education programs. For example, according to the Education Intelligence Agency’s Michael Antonucci, teachers constitute only half of California’s entire education staff. Another one-sixth are instructional aides, guidance counselors, librarians, and administrators, while the remaining one-third of the state’s education workforce are non-teaching staff in district, county, and state offices.

“Congress should make sure that every dollar it sends to states for education is one spent on students,” says Rees.

Empower Parents, Teachers, and Principals

The 1994 reauthorization of Title I redirected funding to schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged children rather than to specific services for Title I students. As a result, instead of using Title I funds on pull-out programs for specific Title I students, schools have used the funds for their entire institution. This year’s reauthorization should give parents and others close to Title I students the flexibility to direct the funds to programs they think will help children learn best.

“Schools and states should be able to use their Title I funding to expand the range of services available to their students, such as opening access to private and sectarian providers with a proven record of success,” recommends Rees.

Boost Teacher Quality

In studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, statistician William L. Sanders measured the impact of individual teachers on students, controlling for family income, ethnicity, and other factors. Sanders concluded that the effect of individual teachers on students dwarfed all other factors, including class size and student demographics. For example, a sixth-grader with three back-to-back years of poor teachers lagged more than 50 percentile points behind classmates with three consecutive years of excellent teachers.

“The ESEA should empower principals to hire the best teachers and encourage the states to attract qualified teachers to low-income settings through alternative certification,” Rees recommends.

Allow Flexibility, But Demand Accountability

Congress should block-grant federal programs to the states, on the condition that funds be used to boost overall NAEP or other high-stakes achievement test scores. States that succeed in boosting achievement should be showcased at the national level and rewarded financially. Congress should work with governors and education reformers to develop a plan that provides maximum flexibility with desirable academic outcomes.

“States that are eager to innovate must have the flexibility to administer the federal programs while being held accountable for their outcomes,” says Rees.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The December 4, 1998, Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum by Nina Shokraii Rees, “Time to Overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965,” is available from The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002-4999, 202/546-4400, and from its Web site at The report also is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for old document #2129301 (2 pp.).