In his 2001 State of the Union address, George W. Bush said, “The highest percentage increase in our budget should go to our children’s education. Education … is my top priority, and by supporting this budget, you’ll make it yours, as well.” He initiated a huge new program, “No Child Left Behind.” And he asked for more money.
In his 2009 State of the Union address, Obama said, “Three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation.” And he asked for more money.
In 1989 the budget for the federal Department of Education was $22.8 billion. By 2008 it was $68.6 billion. Even adjusting for inflation, federal education spending almost doubled. So more federal money was flowing from Washington into education; much more, of course, was spent by local governments, the traditional funders of schools. If the money had been used well, we might have expected federal spending to actually go down: “Looks like our work here is done. You can take back over, local school boards!”
But the results of federal spending have failed to make the grade. For example, studies have shown that Head Start — the predecessor of Obama’s new, proposed pre-school entitlement — did little in the long run to help disadvantaged students. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program resulted in “teaching to the tests” rather than real successes.
It’s ironic that Obama delivered his 2013 State of the Union address on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, considering that a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that just 9 percent of fourth graders could identify the 16th president’s photo and state two reasons why he was important. Sadly, fourth graders aren’t the only ones performing poorly on standardized tests. High school students’ scores on the NAEP have been flat for years, as have SAT scores. The mean score on the math part of the SAT college entrance exams was 502 in 1988 but only 514 in 2011. The scores on the verbal part dropped from 504 in 1988 to 497 in 2011.
If all those billions of federal bucks have been working, why has Obama been telling us how bad our schools are?
In reality, governments can’t run schools any better than they can run computer companies or retail stores. The problem with the education system is that the customers — parents and students — are captives, forced to pay for the schools through taxes but not allowed to choose to which schools they send their kids. There’s no consumer choice.
Even if the governments insist on continuing to fund education, real reform would contain two elements.
First, parents should be allowed to spend the portion of their tax dollars allocated to educations on schools of their choice.
And second, governments should cease owning and operating schools, divesting themselves of all facilities, selling them off to private owners. Let private entrepreneurs offer innovative learning techniques and programs, in brick-and-mortar buildings or online, competing for parent dollars by showing results, showing what works and what doesn’t, profiting from consumer satisfaction. That’s how we do it for groceries, air travel, and smartphones!
Then maybe, as more students become adult voters, future presidents will not continue to insult their intelligence in State of the Union addresses by suggesting that billions of their tax dollars be wasted on decades more of failed government education policies.
Edward Hudgins is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.