Federal education assistance is becoming more of a bug than a boon in the nation’s classrooms. An ever-expanding web of federal programs, rules and regulations has fueled a significant expansion of state education bureaucracies. To keep federal funds flowing, state education systems and local school districts must satisfy Washington’s compliance demands first. The needs of students, parents and taxpayers come a distant second.
What started in 1965 as a front in President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” has metastasized into a $50-billion-a-year Cabinet level operation that reaches into virtually all school districts, rich and poor alike.
First passed in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been reauthorized eight times. In 2001, it was renamed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). But no matter what the moniker, with nearly every reauthorization, Congress has added new “niche” grant programs, each aimed at addressing a particular problem in education.
And, of course, each new program has its own set of rules and regulations to assure fair play in the grant-making process and accountability on the part of grant recipients.
The result: Today, the U.S. Department of Education operates more than 100 separate grant programs. Under NCLB alone, federal bureaucrats this year will dole out nearly $25 billion on more than 60 competitive grant programs and another 20 formula grant programs.
Completing grant applications, monitoring the federal program notices and complying with reporting requirements siphons away huge amounts of educators’ time and money - resources that would be much better devoted to the classroom. A 1994 Government Accountability Office report on education finance found that, while the feds provided just 7 percent of education funding, they accounted for 41 percent of the paperwork burden imposed on the states. Indeed, the report found that the states have had to hire 13,400 workers just to oversee compliance with all the red tape.
It only got worse with the passage of NCLB. By 2006, its new guidelines and regulations were estimated to have increased state and local education agencies’ annual paperwork burden by 6.7 million hours, at a cost of $141 million. This year, one Virginia school district reported that “the cost of setting aside a single day to train the roughly 14,000 teachers in the division on the [NCLB’s] complex requirements is equivalent to the cost of hiring 72 additional teachers.”
In May, Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, reported the cumulative compliance costs continue to mount.
“States and school districts work 7.8 million hours each year collecting and disseminating information required under Title I of federal education law,” he announced. “Those hours cost more than $235 million,” he added, calling NCLB “just one of many federal laws weighing down our schools.”
Washington’s ever-expanding role in education has been paralleled by a huge increase in non-teaching staff on school payrolls. Since the 1950s, the number of teachers as a percentage of school staff has declined from 70 percent to about 51 percent. Meanwhile, administrative support staff increased from 23.8 percent to 30 percent.
And there’s another problem with the top-down approach to education reform: It’s an incredibly inefficient funding mechanism. It’s estimated that only 65-70 cents of every education dollar leaving Washington makes it into the classroom.
In the decades since ESEA’s enactment, federal per-pupil spending has nearly tripled. Yet this “investment” has produced no tangible dividends. Academic achievement and graduation rates have remained relatively flat, achievement gaps between low-income and upper-income children and white and minority children persist, and American students still rank in the middle of the pack with their international peers.
It’s time for a fresh approach. Instead of continuing to try to reform education from Washington, let’s cut the federal bureaucracy and empower states to spend their own money in ways they feel will best meet their students’ needs.
• Lindsey Burke is an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).