Feeding the Fed-Ed Leviathan

Published July 3, 2015

If the principle of zero-based budgeting had been applied to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) at regular intervals during its 50 years of operation, it is doubtful this relic of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society would still exist. Congress would have to justify its existence every year, instead of just giving it continuous funding. And its existence is entirely unjustified.

Its current form is the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which critics of varied stripes widely regard as a colossal flop. Yet, few in Washington, DC dare talk of repeal. Even with both houses now under Republican control, Congress continues to haggle into an eighth year over the particulars of reauthorization.

If Congress acts, NCLB/ESEA—or the “Student Success Act,” or whatever sappy name it might acquire—will continue dispensing tens of billions of dollars in federal school aid. Congressional leaders are touting a degree of regulatory relief, but the House and Senate drafts leave intact the onerous NCLB mandate compelling states to test their pupils each year and report the data to federal officials.

And if Congress fails to act? Well, NCLB will continue to devour taxpayer dollars in theoretical pursuit of 100 percent student passing rates. In addition, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and perhaps his successors, can go on usurping congressional lawmaking authority by rewriting NCLB to advance the executive branch’s Common Core agenda and granting enforcement waivers from the “old” NCLB to states willing to comply with the president’s wishes.

Sure, zero-based budgeting is a long shot, but why not consider it as an alternative to another 50 years stuck in the ESEA spin-and-spend cycle?

The concept is five decades old, just like ESEA, but it sprang up in the corporate world, a brainstorm of a young Texas Instruments accounting manager named Pete Pyhrr. In its March 26, 2015, edition, The Wall Street Journal described zero-based budgeting this way: “[M]anagers plan each year’s budget as if starting their department from scratch—a contrast with the prevailing method of [simply] adjusting the previous year’s spending.”

Under zero-based budgeting, the new budget doesn’t keep funding programs or projects that have failed to deliver benefits. Money shifts to more promising approaches.

Sure, zeroing stuff out and starting anew would be hard work. Even in the private sector the idea languished for decades, but recently it has gained traction in the U.S. food industry with impetus provided by private-equity firm 3G Capital, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What about that massive tax-and-spending machine, the federal government? One president was bold enough to try it with executive agencies. This will surprise some people, but his name is Jimmy Carter. He applied it with some success in areas such as prison and university administration when he was governor of Georgia, and he brought it to Washington, DC in 1977 after championing the idea while campaigning for president in 1976.

Predictably, zero-based budgeting ran into stiff resistance from federal managers and was dropped during the Reagan administration. And Carter certainly fed the ESEA monster when he rewarded the National Education Association for its campaign support by creating the U.S. Education Department.

Be that as it may, how about applying the zero-base principle to ESEA/NCLB, which constituted a big chunk of the $141 billion the federal government spent on education in fiscal year 2014? After all, even former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) said at ESEA’s creation in 1965, “We really ought to have some evaluation in there, some measurement as to whether any good is happening.”

That’s never been seriously done. Is substantial good being accomplished through NCLB and now Common Core driving high-stakes, high-stress testing of children and evaluation of teachers? Can federal bureaucracy really determine what constitutes a “highly qualified teacher”? And harking back to the original intention of this massive law, where is there any evidence it has closed the achievement gap that exists for minority kids from low-income homes or helped to alleviate intergenerational poverty?

U.S. education needs a fresh start. Suppose federal education aid was portable, following each child to the school parents found best for them. Or the federal government could match state, local, and even private contributions to Education Savings Accounts families could use for a wide array of educational services in both the public and private sectors.

There’s no excuse for letting ESEA continue to burn billions and even trillions of tax dollars for another 50 years while helping precious few children become independent learners.

[Originally published at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review]