A Lesson in Keeping Promises Already Made to Schools

Diane Ravitch and
Diane Ravitch Nonresident Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

Tom Loveless
A headshot of Tom Loveless.
Tom Loveless Former Brookings Expert

March 24, 2000

Educators are gratified that schools have become the focus of so much political attention, but there is also a danger. In the heat of the campaign, candidates may bid for votes by promising an abundance of new federal education programs. We have a plan, and we think it will save American education—from the politicians.

The federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education was quite limited until recently. This was no accident: The Constitution does not mention either education or schools. In 1965, however, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which allocates aid to schools that enroll poor children. Even now, federal support for the nation’s schools is minimal. State and local governments supply 93% of the funding for schools, and Washington’s share is only 7%.

Over the past 35 years, the federal government has targeted most of its dollars for needy students: the poor (whose schools get extra dollars through a program called Title I); the handicapped (special education); and bilingual students. During the past several years, however, both major political parties have supported new programs to expand drastically the federal role in the schools, including subsidies and regulations for the purchase of new technology, reducing class size, disciplinary codes, teaching methods for reading and mathematics, recruiting new teachers and deciding what their qualifications should be and selecting exemplary math textbooks.

This unprecedented expansion of the federal role in education is taking place in the absence of compelling evidence that existing federal programs have met their goals. Actually, most evaluations indicate that the major federal programs have been relatively ineffective.

Here is our plan: First, the federal government should fix existing federal education programs before taking on the job of running the nation’s schools. We see no reason to believe that Congress or any new administration is better suited to directing local schools than the people who work in them, send their children to learn in them and pay their taxes to support them.

For example, the federal government has poured more than $100 billion into Title I for poor kids, with little to show for it. Poor kids in Title I schools do not perform better in school than poor kids who are not in Title I schools. Part of the problem is that Title I is a funding stream, not a specific educational strategy. We suggest that Title I money should go to kids, not school districts, just the way higher education funding follows students. This would mean a higher price tag for Title I, but poor children would be able to move to better schools without losing their federal funds.

The second part of our plan is that the federal government should pay for its biggest unfunded mandate on schools: special education. This program serves 5.2 million students at a cost of about $43 billion, but the federal government puts up only about $5.3 billion. These costs are sure to escalate in the future because of court rulings that have blurred the line between medical care (which schools do not have to provide) and “related services” (which schools are obliged to pay for).

In many school districts, special education consumes 20% of the local budget. When the federal government passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1975, it pledged to pay 40% of its cost, but has never put up more than 12%. If the federal government paid what it pledged, this would release $12 billion a year to the nation’s school districts. Obviously, the federal government would have to impose strict cost controls to ensure that schools are not mislabeling children in order to get more federal dollars. With this windfall, schools could decide locally and without a slew of federal regulations how they want to spend their money, whether to pay their teachers more, reduce class size, buy new technology or do something else.

If Congress decided to pick up the cost of the entire federal mandate for special education, the nation’s schools would get $37 billion annually to reallocate to their local educational needs.

Our plan would free schools to use their money as they see fit, minimize the burden of regulations and paperwork, remove the federal government from decisions about curriculum and textbooks, and reduce the capacity of federal officials to impose their political agendas, all while guaranteeing the basic principle that Washington should pay for what it mandates.

The basic principles here are that important education decisions should be made by those who are closest to students, and federal funds should help kids, not bureaucrats. Plus, there is a lesson that any schoolchild should recognize and every government should honor: You should keep the promises you have already made before you make any new ones.