Perspectives in Education- Part 9: Lessening the Federal Role

For anyone reading this series of articles, it should become clear that the Johnson paradigm which is the basic liberal mantra of more money is a losing proposition whether at the federal level or the state level (as the New Jersey Abbott school district scheme illustrates). As I have said before, unlike many a conservative, I do not call for the complete abolition of the federal Department of Education. It can serve a role in being an apolitical clearinghouse for educational data for dissemination to state level policy makers. Also, it should have a role in post-secondary education programs and complete control of student financial aid should rest in this department. The school lunch program should be taken from the Department of Agriculture and transferred here. Some may argue that the school lunch program is another waste of federal tax dollars, but as a later article will explain, it does serve an important educational purpose and is worthwhile in the long run.

But, the road to the government extricating itself from K-12 education is a road that must be taken. The huge, massive federal subsidies have done little to bridge the achievement gap between low and middle or upper income students. Of course, there will be concerns along the way and bumps in the road that must be overcome. This is why “going cold turkey” would not be a wise path to take. The primary purpose of Title I spending is to target low income, low performing school districts. This tact has been an obvious failure in the overall sense although there may be a few success stories which the liberal community will readily point out. But, they fail to point out two other facts. First, the stories of either failure or stagnation far outnumber those success stories. Second, most of the local successes may actually be less attributable to the increased federal spending and more attributable to real reforms undertaken at the state or local level. Using New Jersey’s Abbott school district funding formula, for example, one can point to Union City’s advances in narrowing the gap, at least up to the 5th grade level, in literacy. The liberal will point to Union City and declare Abbott school funding a success. However, even though they received lots of state and federal money, the literacy enhancement program developed by teachers, administrators and parents at the local level is the more important variable in that success story.

The federal government expends about $77 billion annually on a myriad of K-12 education programs. Removing those funds all at once would leave some school districts at a serious disadvantage. For example, although nationally the federal government contributes about 12% toward your average school district’s budget, some individual districts rely more heavily than others on federal funds. Shifting that entire financial burden to the state or local government would likely create financial havoc in those districts. That is why it needs to be done on a gradual basis so that these districts, indeed all districts, have the requisite time to come up with the shortfalls created by the loss of federal dollars.

This should proceed as a ten-year program of gradual reductions of federal expenditures. However, they should not be across the board as this will seriously disadvantage the more federally dependent districts. Based upon 2012 statistics lest any district game the system going forward, those districts whose federal contribution is 7% or less would be fully unfunded by the federal government. These are the districts that would most likely feel the financial pinch the least. In part 11 of this series, a more detailed blueprint will be laid out. However, the formula is not $77 billion divided by ten years to reach a $7.7 billion annual goal. Budget reductions will vary by year depending on the states involved in any year. This way, it is a slow weaning process from the federal government on the part of the low-income states and accelerated in the higher-income states with the goal of total elimination after ten years. Of course, one can argue that this is “wealth redistribution” at its worst, that taxpayers in, for example, Massachusetts (a high income state) are entitled to federal education funds just as Alabama is (a low income state). That line of thinking holds true only if the goal is reductions, not elimination. Yes, Massachusetts taxpayer dollars are being shifted, but in the short term the shifting can be offset at the local level. In the long term, everyone gains by a decreased federal budget and getting the federal government and the associated regulations and mandates- a large cost of education- out of K-12 education.

Ah, but you say, this is nothing more than cost-shifting to the state and local governments. What is to stop states and localities from increasing income or property taxes, or usage fees to make up for the shortfall in federal dollars? Well, first of all, the most neediest of districts would still be receiving federal funding at full levels until their threshold percentage is met. Secondly, state and local pressures and laws could conceivably stem the inflation in local and state taxes along with political pressure from taxpayers. In short, state and local governments would be forced to make education more cost-effective. Furthermore, without that federal backstop of funds, state and local governments would essentially be forced to come up with innovative ways to get more bang for the buck. It would additionally give state and local governments more control over education of their students without the heavy mandates, stipulations, reporting and compliance requirements and intrusion of federal dollars. Considering that about 70% of every federal dollar spent actually makes it into the classroom with the rest going to administrative and compliance costs (or overhead), that represents a savings right there to the state.

Most importantly, states can take the lead from Indiana where the most extensive school voucher program is in existence. There, vouchers are awarded on a sliding scale based on household income. One of the biggest worries about the Indiana program was that vouchers would not reach low income households. Liberals would be wrong in these assertions as the facts prove that in its first year in operation, 85-90% of households receiving vouchers went to free school-lunch eligible students (that is, low income households). Furthermore, eligible household income for a partial voucher is capped at $62,000 in income which captures a large portion of Indiana middle income earners. A voucher for the Indiana state per pupil average of $9,370, for example, could potentially be awarded to a fully eligible low income student for choice in either public school (in which case there would be no “voucher” per se) or for private schooling. If we assume Indiana to be your typical state and the average yearly cost of private school tuition is about $8,000 and the student’s parent chooses a private rather than public school, that represents an actual $1,370 savings in educational expenditures by the state per pupil choosing private education. In effect, states would be setting up and encouraging a competitive educational free market where schools would compete for students.

The pros and cons of school vouchers will be subject of another article and will be dealt with in more detail. But as concerns this discussion, it is an obviously but one way to lessen that impact from the loss of federal dollars. State and local governments would be free to experiment. In fact, they would be free to tax to their heart’s delight if they so desired. But, those decisions would be at the state and local level, not the federal level. But just to touch on another issue, again to be discussed in greater detail in another entry, some will argue that if a state adopted these Indiana-like schemes, they should be prohibited from use in religiously-run schools lest they blur the line between separation of church and state. These arguments are facetious at best. Statistics indicate that Catholic schools, for example, have average annual tuition below the private, non-religious schools by about $3,500 at the elementary level. The state is not coercing anyone into a parochial or religious school so how the Establishment Clause is implicated defies constitutional explanation. Furthermore, if they wanted to, states can prorate the cost of religious instruction out of the voucher amount formula. Again, that word so dreaded by liberals- “choice-” enters the lexicon.

The educational establishment inevitably argues that these programs cost public schools valuable dollars. Well, not really. If we simply held per pupil expenditures at 2012 levels while more students would be attending private schools, per pupil expenditures would actually increase since the funding levels remain the same, but with less students to educate. This would also decrease public school class size, improve teacher to student ratios, allow for more individualized attention since there would be less students and increase the need for qualified teachers in the public and private sector. All the while, a burgeoning private school industry would be developed which, incidentally, would still be under the control of state guidelines and standards, although if met, the state would stay out of the way of how the school achieved those benchmarks (except in the case of fraud).

As stated earlier, vouchers are but one financial bridge the states can use to mitigate the loss of federal dollars. In this way, states would fully be the experimental laboratories for educational reform programs. The federal government’s role would be to collect the information and disseminate it nationally so that policy makers in other states can adopt, copy, tweak or discard reforms undertaken in other states.

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