U.S. Education Policy at a Crossroads: Stop the Waste, or Waste More?

Published November 1, 2004

Drawing its evidence almost entirely from official sources such as the U.S. Department of Education, a thoroughly researched study from the Cato Institute concludes there is little to show for the hundreds of billions of tax dollars the federal government has spent on K-12 education since 1965.

The study suggests this conclusion, coupled with growing state-level unrest over new federal regulations, may lead to K-12 education being returned to local control in each state.

In the study, “A Lesson in Waste: Where Does All the Federal Education Money Go?” Cato education policy analyst Neal McCluskey notes, as a starting point, that the U.S. Constitution provides no basis for federal action in education. Despite that lack of constitutional authority, federal education expenditures in constant dollars have soared from about $25 billion in 1965 to more than $108 billion in 2002.

“For almost 40 years the federal government has broken with both precedent and the Constitution by inserting itself into American education, an area that is traditionally and legally the domain of state and local governments,” notes McCluskey. “In that time the federal government has expended hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from Safe and Drug-Free Schools to programs for towns with historical ties to the whaling industry.”

The wide range of these programs is presented by the Cato study in eight pages of appendices, which list the names, 2004 appropriations, and descriptions of 96 federal education programs in eight different areas. Another three pages of the 30-page report are taken up with a listing of the primary funding areas for the top seven spending departments in 1965, 1980, and 2002.

While the U.S. Department of Education (USDoE), created after Jimmy Carter became president, receives the largest single allocation of federal dollars, McCluskey points out more education dollars are spread to other agencies. For example, in 2002, the USDoE was allocated more than $46 billion, but Health and Human Services was given nearly $23 billion for education and Agriculture almost $12 billion. More than $17 billion went to several other agencies.

And what results have taxpayers seen?

Title I

Title I was initiated in 1965 as a key component of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to improve education for students living in poverty. It is the largest single disbursement by the USDoE, more than $12 billion in fiscal 2004. As McCluskey notes, in terms of reducing disparities in achievement, there is “not much to show for the multiple billions expended on Title I since 1965.”

Head Start

A look at Head Start, the second largest education program, is no more encouraging, despite annual expenditures that have risen to nearly $6.8 billion by 2004. Studies of the program, which offers educational and other services to low-income preschoolers, show it produces only short-term gains that disappear soon after Head Start youngsters leave the program.

Student Achievement

After nearly 40 years of federal efforts to improve K-12 education, McCluskey points out student achievement is not markedly better than in 1965, and in some instances achievement is clearly worse. For example:

  • National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores have stagnated, especially in science and reading;
  • combined SAT scores have dropped, with a 30 percent decline in verbal scores;
  • the graduation rate of 17-year-olds is almost identical today with the rate in 1965, indicating dropout rates have not been materially affected by federal intervention.

“[S]chools … are struggling as much today as they were at the beginning of Johnson’s Great Society,” concludes McCluskey. With a track record like this, he argues, the expanded federal role and funding of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is just the reverse of what should be happening.

However, as states grow “increasingly restive, chafing under the slew of new federal regulations that come with NCLB dollars,” McCluskey sees a silver lining.

“This spreading revolt,” he notes, “coupled with the knowledge that very little of lasting educational value has been created by the federal government, might finally lead to what American K-12 education needs most–for the federal government to return educational control to the families, local governments, and states to which it belongs.”

David W. Kirkpatrick ([email protected]) is a senior education fellow with the U.S. Freedom Foundation and Buckeye Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

For more information …

The Cato Institute’s July 7, 2004 Policy Analysis, “A Lesson in Waste: Where Does All the Federal Education Money Go?” by Neal McCluskey, is available online at http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa518.pdf.