Despite his newfound cost-cutting rhetoric, President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget significantly increases federal education spending. His supporters defend the expansions as consistent with the vision of America’s founders. The historical evidence, however, refutes this argument.
If enacted, the Obama administration’s $77.4 billion education spending proposal would represent a 57 percent inflation-adjusted increase since 2000, according to Heritage Foundation education analyst Lindsey Burke.
The president’s spending plan includes $1.4 billion for a new grant program for early childhood, K-12 and higher education, plus another $350 million for state early childhood programs, even though the federal government’s own Head Start preschool program and ballyhooed universal preschool programs in Oklahoma and Georgia have failed to produce dramatic improvement in student achievement.
The Obama budget also calls for $14.8 billion for the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students, an increase of $300 million over 2010, despite years of research showing that the program has failed to raise student performance.
More spending isn’t the only way that the president is trying to increase Washington’s control over education.
In his State of the Union, Obama highlighted his Race to the Top program’s requirement that states adopt national education standards crafted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Education Week reports that a federally funded group of testing experts is planning to design curriculum aligned to the national standards. Trouble is, federal law prohibits federal funding of curriculum. Some Obama supporters, though, have come up with novel arguments to justify the administration’s Washington-centric policies.
Jack Jennings, former Democratic staff director for the House education committee and current head of the Center on Education Policy, claims that even during America’s founding era the federal government played an activist role in education.
He points to the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which allowed proceeds of land sales to support public education. Jennings, however, conveniently ignores a document far more important to the lives of all Americans — the Constitution.
When the United States ratified the Constitution in 1789, any mention of public education was conspicuously omitted, thus leaving that responsibility to the states or the people under the 10th Amendment, which provides that any power not described in the Constitution and prohibited by it is the province of the states and the public.
The Education Commission of the States, citing the Encyclopedia of Educational Research, has observed that education has remained the domain of states and localities throughout most of U.S. history for three key reasons:
“The Founding Fathers did not trust centralized government; a tradition of local control has been established; and until recently, persons elected to executive and legislative offices did not succeed in reversing the passive federal role in education established in the Constitution.”
Quoting Obama’s complaint that American students are performing below their peers in other countries, Jennings says that our current educational predicament is so severe that we need the federal activism that has created the national standards, assessments and curricula supported by the president. These new national tools, unfortunately, are unlikely to improve student achievement.
“There is no direct relationship between high student achievement and having national standards,” notes University of Arkansas education professor Sandra Stotsky, a member of the national standards validation committee.
She warns that new national standards are weak in key areas such as middle-school math. The national standards are also weaker than state standards in places such as California and Massachusetts.
The Founding Fathers believed in the importance of an educated citizenry, but they didn’t think that the federal government was the best means to achieve that goal. History has proved them right. After decades of failure, it should be apparent that federal meddling is part of the problem, not the solution.