Perspectives in Education- Part 12: Rethinking the Federal Role

This is perhaps the hardest entry in this series to write. While many on the right have called for the abolition of the federal Department of Education, I take a different tack in that I believe there is a role to play for a federal Department of Education. For example, I have advocated that all post-secondary programs be run from this department rather than spread out between its current incarnation, the Treasury and Labor departments, among others. Secondly, the National Education Statistical Center does a great job of collecting data that can be used for state and local level policy makers. Third, the school lunch program, which many conservatives are against (I am not one of them), should be moved from Agriculture to Education.

But, as I write this entry after working and reworking numbers using a variety of systems and formulas, one fact becomes very apparent. When the federal government became in entangled in K-12 education in the 1960s with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and later as it morphed into No Child Left Behind, it created what amounts to an educational entitlement state of affairs. As everyone is well aware, once an entitlement is granted, it is damn well near impossible to rescind that entitlement. Like any entitlement, when rescission is proposed it inevitably creates controversy and heated rhetoric. In the end, the result is usually “reform” of the existing system. Perhaps the best known effort in this regard was the passage of welfare reform in the 104th Congress which was signed into law by Clinton.

With regards to education, for too many years the federal government has thrown more money after negative or stagnant results. Many conservatives will point out that we spend more dollars per pupil at the federal level than most of our foreign counterparts. That is not totally true and per pupil expenditures are not the best indicators in any case. Instead, the better indicator is the public expenditures per pupil as a percentage of GDP per capita. Here, the United States ranks 15th behind such disparate countries as Vietnam or Cuba and Sweden or Belgium. On an international comparison basis against industrialized countries, the US spends about 25% greater than the average on educational costs. But even this may not be the best indicator since student achievement should be the primary purpose of the spending in the first place. The United States falls into the high spender/low achievement category with such nations as Canada, most of Western Europe and Scandanavia. Only three countries- Japan, the Netherlands, and Austria- receive the best bang for the buck. Yet, even more countries exceed the achievement scores of American students for a relatively low dollar investment. They include several former Soviet bloc Eastern European nations, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore.

A 2001 study by Ludger Woessmann, first published in “Education Next,” attempted to look at what dynamics were at play in creating student achievement comparing students in 39 countries, including the United States. Some of the results showed that metrics like per pupil spending and class size do not necessarily translate into positive results. However, having decent instructional materials and experienced, well-educated teachers do have a positive effect. Both of these latter two variables obviously cost money.

One area looked at was centralized exams. These are standardized tests developed by some source outside the school system that test students on expected course content knowledge specific to age groups or grade levels. In fact, this will be the topic of a future entry. The advantages are obvious: they create some semblance of transparency so that school administrators and policy makers can make decisions. They can somewhat pinpoint ineffective teachers or students. They can possibly lead to the more useful allocation of limited resources. Woessmann found that in countries that had some form of centralized exam system, students performed 16 points higher in math and 11 points higher in science. Where test scores decide the curriculum, math scores were 4 points higher, but there was no difference in science scores. This indicates that science tests do not lend themselves to standardization. And there is a reason for that: math is math, but science varies and runs the gamut from the subatomic to the universal, from life to the inanimate and everything in between. Some students take to biology more than they do to physics. Some biology students are more interested in anatomy while another may be interested in ecology. Some physics students may be interested in astrophysics while another may be interested in nuclear fusion or electricity.

The second area looked at was centralized educational planning. Some countries, like the Netherlands, are largely decentralized with the local schools making 73% of all decisions. Others, like Norway, grant only less than 25% autonomy to local schools. The study found that in countries with centralized curricula and textbooks, students scored higher in math and science. But when a school is granted autonomy as to who they may hire as a teacher, scores were also higher. When schools were allowed to make decentralized curricula and textbook decisions, students scored lower on standardized tests. Centralized decision-making in certain areas removes the temptation of self-aggrandizement to make a teacher’s workload lighter which ultimately reduces student scores. However, personnel decisions at the local level- hiring, terminating, amounts of raises, etc.- increases scores. Hence, many of the non-compensation aspects of a collective bargaining agreement between teachers and school districts have a deleterious effect on student achievement. To me, sounds as if people like Governor Walker in Wisconsin have it right.

Other than parents, teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement. As the study noted, the primary purpose of a teacher’s union is to promote the interests of teachers. They achieve this as either increasing their pay or lessening their workload. Sometimes, that is one and the same. The study expected that with the presence of a strong teacher union, student performance should suffer and the results confirm this fact. When teachers, via their unions, determine the school budget, achievement drops 13 points in math and 5 in science. However, effective teachers know how best to teach a class and what resources are conducive to learning. When individual teachers were granted autonomy with respect to classroom supplies, students performed higher in both math and science. But, that works only at the individual teacher level. When a union becomes involved and these decisions become collective, scores in both math and science take a nosedive. This is most likely one of the reasons why private schools will generally perform higher than public schools since private schools are mainly non-union.

Decision making and funding often go hand-in-hand. In the US, funding comes from three sources- the federal, the state and local governments. This study clearly showed that as the degree of funding, decision-making and control moved up the governmental chain, academic achievement declined significantly. This is clear and convincing evidence that the increased role of the federal government in K-12 education in the United States has had a negative effect on student performance. Likewise, one would suspect that adoption of the common core curriculum standards being foisted upon the states by Obama and Arne Duncan is doomed to failure. Since its adoption is tied to funds, states are essentially being bribed or blackmailed into a failing proposition. Of course, Governors live in a real world of fiscal concerns and when they see $300 million dangled before their eyes, it is difficult to resist the temptation. After all, that is $300 million less in state funds that could be used elsewhere. But, at what price to student performance? Disguised as a system to “raise standards nationally,” Governors who sign onto this program are signing a deal with the devil. It is people like Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Rick Perry in Texas who should be lauded for their refusal to go along with this program.

As they both rightfully point out, Obama’s “solution” would seriously interfere with reforms undertaken at the state level with the emphasis on the word “state.” As the Woessmann study found, not only as funding, control, and decision making is passed up the governmental ladder decreasing student achievement, concentrating these things at the local level also has a deleterious effect on student achievement. The reason is that localized control is too prone to the pressures of local interest groups. More often than not, the most powerful local interest group is the teacher’s union. While the federal government is far enough removed from these pressures, they are likewise far removed from local concerns and are lacking in adequate information to make intelligent decisions. The result and most cost-effective method is to create a one-size-fits-all strategy. Instead, the study found that control at an intermediate level- in the United States, the state level- is the best method. States are far enough removed from local interest groups, but close enough to make informed decisions. As with increased federal control, with every 10 percentage point increase in local control, student performance in math and science declined significantly. In essence, McDonnell and Perry are correct. True educational reform must be achieved at the state level.

The final area looked at was the role the mere existence of private schools played on academic achievement of public school students. Obviously, private schools have an incentive to maximize the use of every dollar expended. However, in many foreign countries, private schools are not really “private” in the sense that many receive money from the government. For example, in the Netherlands, up to 76% of private school expenditures are government provided. In the United States, less than 1% of public educational expenditures goes to private schools. In countries with a higher percentage of government funding going to private, independent schools, student achievement increased. However, there was a critical mass of public funding. Once public funding reached somewhere near 50% of the private school’s expenditures, academic achievement started to show decline or stagnation. Hence, this clearly suggests that the mere presence of parental choice in education coupled with some financial assistance from the government to facilitate that choice- up to a limit- increases student achievement in math and science.

The results of this study are much overlooked by the entrenched public educational establishment. Their solution is more federal money and more federal control. This federal government, under Obama, is causing more harm than good in the guise of “educational reform.” Instead, the better reforms are at the state level and that includes funding. The better role for the federal government would be to help proliferate the spread of private educational choices and help parents with those choices.

Originally, this entry was going to illustrate how eliminating federal expenditures and saving the government $77 billion annually in conjunction with states developing working voucher systems would be a winning strategy. It wasn’t. I then considered a hybrid system of slowly weaning blocks of states from federal funding, but this too had drawbacks and adversely affected some states more than others and created tremendous cost-shifting that would have resulted in huge state or local tax increases. Then, another system was used that cut, not eliminated federal spending on education. It was at that point that I converted from a “get the hell out of K-12 education” person to a “reform person.” The fact is that total elimination of federal funds in K-12 education would seriously hurt some states more than other. Granted, some states deserve a cut in federal funding while others may conceivably require more, but at this point seriously decreasing federal spending would be the preferred method.

Then I considered whether bringing up the per-pupil spending amount in all states up to the average level of the highest performing states would be a workable system. This basically shifted federal funds from 12 states to 34 other states while leaving 5 alone. The savings to the federal government would have been only about $10 billion annually. Several states would have lost federal funding altogether, which may not be a bad thing, but hardly fair to federal taxpayers in these states. Even the establishment of an $11,000 per pupil mandatory level would result in some states losing federal dollars altogether to other states gaining federal dollars. Again, this is hardly fair and, furthermore, it is nothing more than price or cost controls dictated from the federal government.

But, what if the federal government instead provided the financial means to states to fund a viable voucher system? That is the subject of the next entry.

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