November 5 2012

Parents, Not Presidents, Should Be the Real Arbiters of Education Policy

Vicki E. Alger

Federal education spending—this is the issue that makes this presidential election so high-stakes, according to Education Week. But how much control does—or more to the point, should—any president have over education?

First, let’s put federal education spending in perspective. Funding for public schools comes from local, state, and federal taxes. Historically, the federal revenue share has stayed below 10 percent of total public school revenue, which exceeds a half trillion dollars just for elementary and secondary education.

Even the U.S. Department of Education, which was established in 1979 to help improve student academic performance, admits that reading and math achievement among 17-year-olds today is essentially the same as it was back in the early 1970s.

What’s changed is that per-pupil public school spending has jumped from an average of $4,700 in 1969-70 to more than $11,000 today. Over the same period the federal funding share has gone from less than $100 per student to more than $1,000.

What this review suggests is that we’re spending more for more of the same, so federal "expertise" is not exactly what you'd call value added.

Second, what role should a president have in dictating education policy through the U.S. Department of Education? Reagan was the only president to dare argue that the department should be scrapped. Presidents since then have used it (especially during election season) as an expensive funding pass-through for pet education plans designed to make all students proficient by 2000…no wait, 2014, no wait again…states can waiver out of the 100 percent proficiency target. The point is, it's easy to spend other people's money on programs that sound good--even if they don't wind up working.

What matters is that parents, not presidents, bureaucrats, or members of Congress, know what’s best for their children. Even more, parents—not any politician—have the loving, long-term vested interest in their children's success that no pol ever could (no matter how many babies candidates kiss at election time).

That’s why parents need to be in charge of their children’s educations—and state-level policies designed to accomplish that goal are what matter most this—and any other—election year.

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