- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As the budget wars unfold, federal employees complain of being targeted as overpaid bureaucrats. A better target would be redundant and counterproductive federal agencies, which seem off-limits to the media.

The New York Times poster person for the issue is Iyauta Moore, a black single mother with a master’s degree in public administration. The 34-year-old, a member of the American Federation of Government Employees, pulls down more than $100,000 a year at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) overseeing grants. She feels good about the task.

“What I do here involves creating something that doesn’t exist,” she told the Times’ Ashley Parker, whose piece failed to provide any background on the U.S. Department of Education. As it happens, that federal agency didn’t exist until 1980. President Carter created it as a payoff to the National Education Association (NEA), the teachers union that endorsed him in 1976, the first time the powerful NEA had openly backed a presidential candidate.

The ED may provide lucrative jobs for more than 4,000 government employees, but its effect on educational performance remains dubious. Canada provides a startling contrast.

Canada has no federal education ministry or department and no federal Cabinet official for K-12 education. At the federal level, Canada spends virtually nothing on K-12 education and on a per-student basis, spends about 20 percent less than the United States. Yet Canada is outperforming the United States.

On the International Student Assessment, a system of tests measuring the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science literacy, Canada tops the United States by a wide margin. In math, Americans score 474, well below the international average of 498, and far below Canada’s 527. On the 2006 Progress in Reading Literacy Study exam, the major Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario significantly outscore the United States in fourth-grade reading.

In Canada, all funding and policymaking takes place at the provincial and local levels. In America, education is the responsibility of the states, but the federal government has increasingly pursued a top-down approach, with measures such as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Obama’s Race to the Top. Mr. Obama - who sends his own children to an exclusive private school - has also been active at the local level.

Mr. Obama teamed with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to quash the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a popular and successful school-choice plan. Teacher unions applauded the move and the mood was doubtless upbeat at the ED.

The agency’s primary lesson is that federal bureaucracies are easy to start but practically impossible to shut down. Ronald Reagan and others failed to shut down the ED but perhaps the new Congress can have a go at defunding it.

Meanwhile, the thousands of highly paid employees at the ED, however good they feel about themselves, are working to reinforce the status quo, not challenge it. The prospects for reform remain remote until all Americans have full choice in K-12 education as a matter of basic civil rights.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director at the Pacific Research Institute.