Federal government programs like Title I, which seeks to improve disadvantaged students' academic achievement, have been an abject failure. Though most of these programs are intended to help disadvantaged students, the Department of Education does not have the knowledge, funding, or manpower to understand or solve the problems that individual schools and districts face. Providing states and school districts with financial flexibility will help them solve these problems more effectively than top-down programs with funding mandates, regulations, and inefficient bureaucratic rules and procedures.
As a nation, we spend $1.13 trillion on education at all levels. At the primary and secondary levels, the federal government provides only about one-tenth of the funding. The rest comes from state, local, and private sources. In human terms, the DOE has 5,000 employees that oversee 14,000 school districts, nearly 100,000 public schools, and 56 million students. It is simply not possible for DOE employees and leaders to understand the intricacies of the problems that individual schools or districts face. Therefore, it faces an enormous disadvantage in determining the most effective way for schools to budget their finances.
Nevertheless, the federal programs we have designed typically operate by setting strict rules for how funds may be spent and then by monitoring how those funds are spent through an endless sea of paperwork and bureaucracy. The DOE should spend less time caring about procedures and compliance, and more time caring about outcomes.
The federal government has already set a good precedent for education standard-setting in other youth-related policies.
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The law tied 10% of highway funds to a mandated drinking age of 21-years-old. Whether or not you agree with that law, it provides a good example for how the federal government should operate its education programs: setting a goal, providing states or districts with financial incentives to achieve that goal, and then giving states or districts the freedom to pursue the best strategy to meet it given their unique circumstances.
The GOP-sponsored State and Local Funding Flexibility Act is a good step in this direction. It would allow states, districts, and schools to tailor their solutions to meet the needs of their students. It also removes much of the so-called “red tape” that is involved in receiving federal funds, so that schools can plan effective programs in advance with assurance of their budget, spend less time filling paperwork, and more time focusing on instruction and learning. However, states would still collect data on how the funds were spent so that the DOE can gather information about which programs are most effective. The bill has received support from the American Association of School Administrators, saying the DOE should “trust, but verify” that funds are being spent effectively.
Democrats have criticized the bill, arguing that it does not ensure that funds will be allocated to support disadvantaged students. Given the state of U.S. education and the achievement gap, I would think this criticism falls flat. More flexibility will help the worst off, who, because of the complexities of the regulations in federal legislation, sometimes need intervention but do not receive it because they do not qualify for Title I.
Districts and administrators are in a better position to make judgments about the best way to allocate funds than employees at the DOE. Providing more flexibility will help us get away from the one-size-fits-all top-down model, and move to a bottom-up model that allows schools to experiment and tailor solutions to their unique student populations.
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