Federal meddling in education

The U.S. Department of Education as we know it today was created in 1979 during the Carter administration. The Department of Education Organization Act divided the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which was created in 1953 during the Eisenhower administration, into two new entities — the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. The initial budget for the department was $14.2 billion.

Here are the spending numbers for 2009 through 2012. Hold on to your checkbook.

The Department of Education budgets for those years were $32 billion $56 billion, $71 billion and $77 billion, respectively — or $236 billion total. But wait, there’s more. The American Relief and Recovery Act (a.k.a. “the stimulus) provided an additional $102 billion, $51 billion, $23 billion and $19 billion, respectively, for stimulus outlay for the department of $195 billion, of which West Virginia received $495 million. Spending for the years 2009 through 2012 was an astonishing $431 billion.

According to the Department of Education, its mission is: to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. If that is its mission, I would have to conclude that it has failed. According to its own literature, literacy rates in the U.S. actually peaked in 1979, the year the department was created. High school graduation rates rose dramatically in the U.S. from 50 percent in 1950 to more than 80 percent in 1983. The rate of increase has actually slowed since then.

On global competitiveness, according to a recent Harvard University study involving 49 countries, U.S. students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading. Another interesting finding of the study – In 2009, the U.S. spent more than $10,000 per student, ranging from $6,356 to $18,126 in New York. Utah’s high school graduation rate, however, was higher than New York’s. In other words, “throwing money at it” isn’t necessarily the solution.

The Department of Education acknowledges that it has no jurisdiction over the individual states with regard to how they operate their school systems, but uses its vast resources to “influence” state policy through grants and incentive programs.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act took this a step further. While stopping short of creating a nationalized school system, NCLB instead required states to establish their own standards in order to maintain eligibility for grants – while making available an additional $89 billion to help states meet their targets. It proved wildly unpopular and unsuccessful, and the law expired in 2007 with little support in Congress to re-enact it. One by one, states have been given waivers to opt out, now 33 states in all, with five more in the application process. West Virginia has been given a one-year grace period in which to meet the waiver requirements.

Another highly criticized federal program is Race to the Top or R2T (not to be confused with the quarterback of the Redskins). Here is another attempt to get states to jump through policy-changing hoops set up by the federal government. Like a game show, states compete against each other for billions of dollars in prizes. While some states believe the awarding process is fraught with political bias, others have dropped out of the competition because they did not want to “place their programs in the hands of bureaucrats in Washington.”

There are many, myself included, who feel that a federal department of education is unconstitutional. That said, a federal agency whose job is to meddle in the affairs of the individual states’ departments of education is simply bad idea — and an expensive one at that — and the results bear this out.

In a previous column I presented the case that education is best administered at the local level. The money wasted at the federal level actually works against the money spent at the local level. It is the worst of all possible worlds prompting this rhetorical question: How can “bureaucrats in Washington” or, for that matter, bureaucrats in Charleston help improve education in Jefferson County? Answer: They can’t.

Next time I’ll discuss a similar problem – The Common Core.

— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry.

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