Bringing education reform back home

Pete Hoekstra Shillman Senior Fellow, Investigative Project on Terrorism
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A just-released study from the Government Accountability Office uncovers massive duplication in federal government programs. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) estimates that the resulting waste costs taxpayers more than $100 billion a year.

This may be news to some in Washington, but not to Americans who have to carry out Washington’s policies at the local level. Every day, they live the waste, fraud and duplication.

Take our local public schools. From 1995 to 2001, the House Education and Workforce Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, which I chaired at the time, did an exhaustive study of what works and what’s wasted in the federal education bureaucracy. Not to our surprise, we found that locally directed efforts — by the folks who know the names of the children they’re responsible for educating — work best.

We learned that successful schools weren’t the product of tens of billions in federal spending. They were characterized by parental involvement, local control, an emphasis on basic academics and dollars actually spent in the classroom.

Much like the GAO report released on March 1st, our subcommittee report, “Education at a Crossroads,” identified a system plagued by failure, duplication and bureaucracy.

More than 760 education programs, overseen by at least 39 federal agencies, cost taxpayers $100 billion a year even as schools continued to decline. Teachers and parents in neighborhood schools saw federal mandates, paperwork and red tape — not the necessary tools to help educate their children. As little as 65 to 70 cents of every dollar made it into the classroom.

“It is time for the burden of proof to shift to the federal government,” the subcommittee report concluded. “If it cannot be demonstrated that a particular federal program is more effectively spending funds than state and local communities would otherwise spend them, Congress should return the money to the states and the people, without any burdensome strings attached.”

That was in 1998. Yet today, when children who were kindergarteners then should be ready to graduate from high school, the story remains the same.

In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, a law filled with more mandates and red tape that significantly expanded the federal government’s role in K-12 education. The federal “educrats” tell local schools who the good teachers are and what schools are making adequate yearly progress.

We remain at a crossroads; it’s time to get serious about moving ahead on education reform.

But how? We should begin by reducing the mandates handed down from Washington. We also should give states and localities the flexibility to develop the programs that work best for local children. Rather than just cut budgets, we must be creative to solve real problems. For instance: Why not trim funding by 15 percent while also offering a significant reduction in paperwork and red tape?

Most states would jump at the deal. This would remove the headaches of “compliance management,” strengthen the focus on teaching and meeting the needs of our kids, help resolve the budget crisis in Washington, and put more dollars into the classroom.

There is no reason why the government education mess can’t become an opportunity to empower parents and teachers. Local control works. We see it every day.

Pete Hoekstra, who represented Michigan’s 2nd District in the House from 1993 until January 2011, is a visiting distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.