TCS Daily

The Sinkhole Grows

By Veronique de Rugy - July 25, 2005 12:00 AM

In the 1990s, the Republican party sought to abolish the Department of Education as an inappropriate intrusion into state, local, and family affairs. The GOP platform was clear: "The Federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the market place. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education."

Ever since President Carter created the Department of Education, the GOP had wanted to get rid of it. But today, with President Bush leading the way, the GOP is embracing the idea that the federal government should play a larger role in education. Sounding like the evil twins of 1990s Republicans, President Bush and his administration speak with great pride about increasing federal funding for education.

Whenever he can, President Bush touts the huge spending increases necessary to promote his No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). But it's not just NCLB funding that has increased: the entire education budget has ballooned during the president's time in office. The Department of Education's budget has grown by 82.5 percent in real terms from $34.9 billion in FY2001 to $63.7 billion in FY2005. This is the largest increase of any president since Lyndon Johnson.

And President Bush's 2006 budget asks for more of the same. Every state sees an increase in grant money, nearly 5 percent on average. The average state receives a level of grant funding that is more than 50 percent higher than when President Bush took office; no state has an increase less than 35 percent.

In spite of the GOP's extravagance, Democrats constantly criticize the Administration for not spending enough. During the presidential campaign, Kerry told voters that the President was not serious about education and promised that, if elected, he would spend an additional $27 billion.

Special interest groups are also dissatisfied with the amount of money going to education. In April, the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education charging that the federal government hasn't provided enough money for states to comply with the NCLB. This is bad news for fiscal conservatives: the Bush administration may use this opportunity to brag about how much they have increased federal education spending and may be required to spend even more.

In response to the NEA lawsuit, the Department of Education declared that, "President Bush and Congress have provided historic funding increases for education." Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings emphasizes that since 2001, federal funding for K-12 education has increased 37 percent and Title I funds for disadvantaged students, the main source of NCLB funding, have increased 45 percent.

When the administration trots out these spending statistics, it is playing the NEA's game. Teachers unions have long argued that schools would improve if only they had more money. Accordingly, a politician's support for education is measured by how much money he pours into it.

This is unfortunate. The only real measure of success is not how much we are spending but whether we are getting the most bang for our bucks. American schools are already very well-funded. Moreover, there is little evidence that additional funding would much improve the quality of education.

In international comparisons of per-pupil expenditures, the U.S. ranks near the top of the list. According to OECD figures, the U.S. spends 78 percent more per primary school student than Germany, 58 percent more than France, 31 percent more than Japan, and 71 percent more than the U.K. But despite these large spending differentials, American students perform no better than average on international comparisons of math and reading skills.

Comparisons over time reveal a similar story. From 1960 to 2000, inflation-adjusted spending on education in the U.S. nearly tripled, yet test scores show little improvement, dropout rates are high, and a large racial achievement gap persists.

Education economist Caroline Hoxby explains that public schools today are doing less with more: school productivity -- achievement per dollar spent -- declined by 55 to 73 percent from 1971 to 1999. Meanwhile, private and charter schools are boosting student achievement with lower expenditures per pupil than public schools. In other words, there is no consistent, systematic relationship between education spending and student outcomes.

Trumpeting huge increases in education spending may lower the level of complaining from the NEA and other critics of President Bush's education policies, but "historic" new federal spending is nothing for a fiscal conservative to brag about. And given the weak effectiveness of money to improve education, it's nothing for an education reformer to boast about either.

The Bush administration has taken the GOP from advocating no federal spending on education to spending like drunken sailors. It's high time for the party to sober up and remember its core principles.

Veronique de Rugy is a Research Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Kathryn Newmark is a Research Assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.


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