Eliminate the Department of Education

Mona Charen argues that eliminating the Department of Education is a good idea:

he Department of Education was created as a straight political payoff to the teacher’s unions by President Jimmy Carter (in return for their 1976 endorsement). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, DE’s original budget, in 1980, was $13.1 billion (in 2007 dollars) and it employed 450 people. By 2000, it had increased to $34.1 billion, and by 2007, more than doubled to $73 billion. The budget request for fiscal 2011 is $77.8 billion, and the department employs 4,800.

All of this spending has done nothing to improve American education. Between 1973 and 2004, a period in which federal spending on education more than quadrupled, mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose just one percent for American 17-year-olds. Between 1971 and 2004, reading scores remained completely flat.

She explains that the Department is worse than useless:

The Education Department has done more than waste money. Busy bureaucrats have created reams of paperwork for teachers and administrators, pushed dubious curricula like bilingual education, and adopted manifold extra-educational missions. The department’s website lists hundreds of programs that bear little to no relation to schooling, including the “Spinal Cord Injuries Model Systems Program,” “Small Business Innovation Research Program,” “Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights,” “Predominantly Black Institutions Program,” “Life Skills for State and Local Prisoners,” “Institute for International Public Policy,” “Grants to States to Improve Management of Drug and Violence Prevention Programs,” “Grants to Reduce Alcohol Abuse,” and “Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program,” to name just a handful. No one checks. There is no accountability. There are no consequences for failure, except perhaps, requests for even greater funding next year.

It’s the same thing in higher education, due to, typically, a different set of agencies and initiatives. There’s been much talk lately of a bubble in higher education. Tuition, fees, room, and board have been increasing at twice the rate of inflation. My total bill, annually, back in the 1970s: $3,000. Today the same college costs well over $50,000. I can testify that faculty salaries have not been the crucial factor. Where does the money go?

A considerable amount of it goes to the amenities that students and parents increasingly seem to demand. My university is completing a second student union, despite the fact that the first is beautiful and underutilized, just after completing an outdoor swimming pool complex that puts world-class resorts to shame. I think colleges are foolish for entering this kind of competition, but the blame doesn’t lie just with them.

A more serious factor, however, is what Charen mentions: mandates, regulations, laws, etc., that require Vice-Presidents, Assistant Vice-Presidents, and considerable staffs to monitor and attempt to comply with. Administrative costs consume a stunning amount of higher education expenditures, and have been growing rapidly. Federal involvement is responsible for most of them.

Charen observes that education spending has little to do with educational results. She gives examples and tells anecdotes, but research supports her point. A graph relating achievement and expenditure looks like a shallow U. The worst place to be is in the middle. Schools in the bottom quintile of expenditures per student have higher achievement than those in the middle quintile—and almost the same achievement as those in the top quintile.

To liberals, that’s a stumper. To someone in the education establishment, however, it’s not a surprise at all. Suppose you were in a school in the bottom quintile, and you suddenly got lots of new money to spend. What would you do with it? First, maybe, spruce up the place: fix the hole in the roof, plant some shrubbery, buy some fancy new computers, buy new sports equipment, renovate the sports fields. Effect on student achievement: zero. Second, hire some assistants (assistant principals in K-12; assistant deans, provosts, and VPs in higher education) to do your work for you. They won’t be as effective as you were, and they’ll find lots of new things to do, most of which involve interfering with the judgment of the students and faculty. Effect on student achievement: negative.

Getting rid of the assistants, and getting rid of the bureaucracy that encourages or even forces institutions to hire them, would do wonders for education at all levels.

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