- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

Whenever education policy is debated, policymakers automatically assume the answer to the problem is more federal tax dollars. A perfect example of this was on display in President Clinton's final State of the Union speech.

During his address to the nation, the president proposed more than $8.5 billion in new federal education spending. In the Republican response, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine promised to increase federal spending for elementary and secondary education while bragging that last year Republicans spent $500 million more on education than the president had requested.

This false assumption has apparently embarrassed no one, but has cost taxpayers billions and done little or nothing to improve our educational system. Unfortunately, Washington's efforts to convince Americans to believe the big lie (more spending equals better schools) have largely been successful.

Advocates of higher spending might not be so successful, however, if more Americans were aware just how drastic the increase in federal education outlays has been since the mid-1960s. For instance, between 1960 and 1990, spending on elementary and secondary education increased from $50 billion to nearly $190 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. During the same period, per-student spending more than tripled, growing from $1,454 to $4,622. Between 1973 and 1993, public school spending increased by 47 percent while per pupil spending increased by 62 percent. At the same time the total number of teachers increased by 17 percent. Even more incredibly, non-teaching positions grew by 40 percent.

Translated into cold, hard cash, between 1965 and 1999 the federal government spent $466 billion on education in discretionary spending alone (billions more have been spent on several ambiguous mandatory educational programs).

In fact, the record clearly suggests that the more Washington bureaucrats are involved in education policy, the greater the spending. For example, in the decade prior to the establishment of the Department of Education, non-defense/non-education spending grew 29 percent faster than education spending. In the period since the establishment of the department in 1979, education spending has grown 31 percent faster than non-defense/non-education spending.

Clearly, government spending on education has been growing at an exponential rate and has reached gigantic proportions. Unfortunately for Americans, their return on this "investment" has been anemic at best. For instance, between 1960 and 1990, student performance on SATs actually declined. Even if a student's SAT scores are good enough to get him into college, there is a good chance they will not possess the skills to stay there very long. The United States has one of the highest university dropout rates in the industrialized world 37 percent.

Even those students who try to stay in high school do not fare well when compared with the rest of the world. Of the 29 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Mexico had a lower high school graduation rate, with the United States graduating less than three-quarters of its students. At the 3rd International Science and Mathematics Study, students from every country but Cyprus and South Africa outperformed American students.

Instead of debating how much more to spend, or what minor alterations will reverse more than three decades of failures, Americans should question the role of the federal government in education. From the founding of our nation until quite recently, education was correctly considered the purview of states and localities.

Doing its best impersonation of Lucy on the "I Love Lucy" show, Washington has stuck its nose where it doesn't belong and has made a royal mess of things. Washington should admit as much and gracefully bow out of education policy. Assuming Washington can muster the courage to relinquish some of its power, education policy could get back on the right track. Unfortunately, that's not an assumption I'm willing to make.

Eric V. Schlecht is director of congressional relations for the National Taxpayers Union.

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