Strangely, as spending has gone up, test scores have dropped. Although we spend about $9,200 annually per public school student, a nearly 70 percent increase over the past three decades, roughly 1 million students drop out every year. This despite the fact that the Department of Education is being delegated roughly $48 billion in this year’s federal budget and was targeted for no less than $81 billion under Mr. Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Yet, despite massive increases in spending, virtually nothing has been accomplished in improving the quality of American education in kindergarten through 12th grade. For example, in 1980, about 2.75 million high schoolers graduated. In 2005, the number was about 2.8 million even though population in the intervening 25 years had risen from 226 million to more than 300 million.
What to do? First, eliminate the myriad duplicative programs. As of June, there were 69 federal programs designed to provide early childhood “assistance and care.” How does this possibly make sense? Granting that such programs are a good idea (for the sake of argument), consolidation would free up funds from bureaucratic overhead that could be spent on actually helping children. Or, better yet, allow states – or even parents – to keep their own money and spend it as they think wisest.
Second, stand up to the unions that put sinecures for “educators” ahead of the needs of children. When in 2002 a philanthropist offered $200 million to establish charter schools in Detroit, teachers staged a walkout in opposition to the proposal – which, shortly thereafter, was withdrawn. Competition – induced by charter schools, magnet schools, tax credits or voucher programs to enable parents to decide where to educate their children, etc. – would create true, market-based incentives for education reform.
Third, cut waste and reform the disastrous, debt-incurring student loan programs. Last year, the Government Accountability Office estimated that waste and abuse in student loan programs cost taxpayers $1 billion annually. As noted by education scholars Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven, “Under the Federal Family Education Loan Program, dozens of loan originators figured out how to earn a 9.5 percent guaranteed return from the government, even though market interest rates have been much lower.” This is just one of the student loan programs crying out for reform.
Fourth, pass the innovative A-Plus Act, offered by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, which would return a lot of authority to parents and localities and remove it from the educational bureaucracy languishing at the foot of Capitol Hill. As explained by Mr. DeMint, “All states would have the option of establishing a five-year Performance Agreement with the Secretary of Education. If approved, states would be able to combine funds from a few – or all – of the federal education programs that are administered at the state level and would be freed from the requirements of each individual program, allowing states to use the federal funds on proven state initiatives that advance the education priorities of the state.”
Finally, consider teaching your children at home. Home-schoolers score 86 percent, on average, on three of the major pre-college evaluations – as compared to 50 percent for public schoolers. Teachers unions, in fighting the spread of home-schooling, have hotly argued that no one without an education degree can possibly teach children well, and they have attempted to add levels of regulation and roadblocks to parents. But perhaps it is the education-centered approach of home-schooling, sans bureaucracy, that aids in a clear outcome: smarter, better-prepared, healthier and happier children.
In 1995, the then-new Republican majority made a tepid sortie against the Department of Education. The mission failed, and many of the department’s erstwhile opponents have since become advocates of a federal entity they once purported to oppose. Moral courage fell by the wayside as the “outsiders” became preoccupied with re-election, larger objectives or sheer philosophical incoherence.
As a Republican press secretary on the Hill in those halcyon days, I watched the supposed Republican revolution deflate before my eyes. I’d prefer not to witness such a sight again.
There is nothing compassionate about sustaining something that undermines the very purpose for which it was created. And for professing conservatives to say, in essence, “We’re just like the Democrats, only not as much,” is hardly consistent with allegiance to constitutional governance or the interests of those they represent.
The half-measures I have outlined are just first steps. Putting a monster on a diet might make it a little less plodding, but it remains a beast. Should Republicans retake control of Congress in the fall – or whenever they next have real power on Capitol Hill and the White House – they should aim carefullyand slay the dragon once and for all. Parents, children and the future of the nation deserve no less.