In 1867, with the stroke of his pen, President Andrew Johnson created the first federal Department of Education. Johnson, who was illiterate until adulthood, created the agency to collect data on the successes and failures of education across America. Less than a year later, it was killed out of fear that the federal government would take over education.
In the 1950s the federal government jumped back into the education conversation because Sputnik provided proof positive that our children needed to up their game if they were going to keep up with Russian children. In the 1960s Congress moved on significant legislation built to ensure that all children were given equal access to high quality education. In the 1970s, the Department of Education was created to "ensure the United States has a well-educated and skilled workforce to compete in the global market place." Beginning with the very next presidential campaign, Ronald Regan made federal involvement in education a hot topic.
In the 1990s, Congress focused on building work readiness skills as a part of education. School-to-Work, as it was called, quickly became a lightening rod. Many in Congress were outraged that American children would be pigeonholed into work. Opponents argued that America isn't China and that we don't dictate the limits of our children's abilities. The compromise? Washington decided to call it School-to-Career and so it became the unintentional springboard for the demise of technical and vocational programs in America. Then under President George W. Bush, the biggest federal land grab in American education – No Child Left Behind – was hardly noticed outside of educational insiders. Today, taxpayers spend $55 billion on education (about 9% of all education dollars) on everything from School-to-Work to Race-to-the-Top.
According to the Government Accountability Office's report entitled "Federal Education Funding" released last year, there are 20 federal agencies operating 151 different education programs. That's a problem. There is no way with their project du jour attitude, Congress can provide any meaningful oversight or return on investment analysis on 151 projects. So there is silo's, duplication and inefficiencies. With no "standard definition of a federal education program," legislators not only don't know what's out there; they don't know how much their spending on education government-wide. Easy fix #1 – define what an educational program is so you can measure it in dollars, quality and impact.
When a Congressional member enacts a new initiative, they assign responsibility for it to a federal agency. People are creatures of habit so it is likely the bill is one having to do with their particular area of interest and, to give it as much chance at passage as possible, it is likely it will come through the committee on which they sit. That is how we get after school programs in the Department of Labor and character development programs in the Department of Agriculture without regard to the agencies primary mission or even willingness to manage said program.
Once federal dollars hit the books of the government agency responsible, they dole it out in one of two ways. They may divvy it up by formula or they grant it out in a competitive process. In the case of the former, there is little wiggle room. States get what they get and they use it in the way Congress laid out; a Congress, by the way, that averages about 10% of its members having any kind of background in education. In the case of the latter, however, a competitive process is triggered. The agency releases a Request for Proposals that explicitly details the goals, performance and budget of the project.
No matter who is eligible to respond – states, school districts, colleges or nonprofits – they must lay out their plans backed by proven research, significant collaboration, fiscal forecasting, performance benchmarks and reporting requirements. If an organization doesn't want the project, they don't apply. If they do want it, they have to work for it. Those proposals are then rated for funding. If you don't rate, you don't get funded. If you do rate and do get funding, you have a blueprint plan ready to go for a dramatically reduced start up time, more oversight capacity, built in collaborative partnerships, a budget and established performance measures. The competitive process is a tool to better select, better monitor and hold more accountable the impact of taxpayer dollars. If it's good for the goose, is it not good for the gander? Easy fix #2 – make agencies compete for federal dollars to ensure they are strategically prepared to and have the capacity to oversee the project.
America has been struggling with a national vision for how we will thrive in a modern world since President Andrew Johnson. It is fitting that we finally define what it is to be educated in a modern world 146 years after our nations only illiterate president served in the White House.