This week marks the 10th anniversary of the enactment of No Child Left Behind—the federal government's largest attempt to improve the condition of America's public schools. That means that for a decade now, bureaucrats in Washington have been telling state and local leaders how they should test their students and recruit and/or train their teachers.
Undoubtedly, this has been done with all the best intentions of giving parents more information and encouraging states and localities to make needed reform. But after a decade, one can't help but conclude that NCLB has failed to yield meaningful improvement on key measures of students' performance, including the long-term NAEP examination (see reading scores for 17-year-olds, for example).
Education, particularly K-12 education, has received little attention in the presidential campaign. That might be refreshing—after all, education doesn't appear in the constitution and really isn't supposed to be driven from Washington—except that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal government is now spending more than $115 billion annually on all of its programs to support K-12 education. When you consider all levels of government spending, taxpayers are forking over more than $10,000 on average annually per pupil.
Taxpayers should be asking how this money is being spent. Why, when they spend so much money, are only one in three 4th graders scoring "proficient" in reading on the NAEP? The management company McKinsey analyzed the effects of our poor education system and concluded that it was the equivalent of a permanent national recession, dragging down our economy and the standard of living for all Americans.
This is an issue that needs to be discussed. It may seem as though education policy has been rehashed to death, but I'd hope that Americans might now look at education through a new lens. In recent years, we've been schooled in the main ways government fails to deliver—from helping to create the housing bubble to mismanaging the financial crisis to the green energy boondoggle, through which the government funnels money to favored companies that just happen to be political supporters.
Citizens should start to look at our education system in the same way. After all, the public education system is at its core a massive government initiative, which takes money from taxpayers and feeds it into a vast education bureaucracy. And there's a reason that decades of dumping more and more money into public education has failed: It's because the structure is fundamentally flawed and, sadly, giving kids the best education isn't the primary goal of most public education systems (which seem to be better understood as a government-employee jobs program).
The good news is that change in education seems almost inevitable. As I've written, new technologies are creating new options for parents and encouraging entrepreneurs to get in the education game. Policymakers need to encourage this trend by returning control of education resources to parents and education consumers so they can use the services that provide the biggest bang for the education buck. That—not some government-generated testing regime or other accountability initiative—is the best way to hold education providers accountable.