Broken Promises: What the Federal Government Can Do To Improve American Education

March 1, 2000

Education has emerged as one of the major issues in the 2000 presidential campaign. Candidates in both political parties sometimes seem to be in a bidding war to see who can devise the most new government programs. If there is a problem, goes the current wisdom, there must be a federal program to fix it. In their eagerness to appeal to voters, however, candidates are paying too little heed to the traditional federal role in education and the noticeable deficiencies of existing federal programs.

Federal government responsibilities in education have always been limited. The word “education” does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution. States and local school districts have always made the day-to-day decisions about instruction, teachers, textbooks, and the like. For most of the nation’s history, Washington confined itself to collecting data on school systems and disseminating information on the progress of education. Until 1965, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, federal support for K-12 education was minimal. Today the federal government foots only about 7 percent of the nation’s K-12 education bill, and its share has never exceeded 10 percent.

The small slice of federal funding for education goes mostly to “categorical” programs. The two largest serve poor (Title I) and handicapped (special education) students. The vast majority of American children do not qualify for these or any other categorical program. For most students in most schools, only a penny or two of each education dollar can be traced back to Washington.

The most significant limit on federal influence arises from the sheer distance between Washington and the classroom. Federal programs typically travel first to the 50 state departments of education, which send them to local school districts, then to administrators at school sites, and finally, perhaps, to classroom teachers. At each stop, money is drained off to support a bureaucracy. Regulations are tweaked and molded to fit local priorities. On reaching the classroom, federal policy bears as much resemblance to its original form as a bird to a dinosaur, its evolutionary ancestor.

Candidates for office—whether running for president or for Congress—should recognize these realities. The current political climate, however, makes it difficult for politicians to acknowledge Washington’s limited role. Education, they know from opinion polls, is the public’s number one concern. In recent years, Democrats and Republicans alike have supported dramatically extending the federal reach into schools. Placing more technology in classrooms, establishing school disciplinary codes, deciding how reading will be taught, recruiting new teachers and determining their qualifications, launching after-school programs, selecting exemplary math textbooks—these are just a few areas that were once the sole responsibility of state and local school officials but that now seem to be regarded as the proper subject of federal action.

An Appropriate Federal Role

The public’s desire to improve public schools, though laudable, does not justify expanding the federal government’s role in education. There is scant evidence that existing federal programs are accomplishing their goals; indeed, most evaluations of the major federal categorical programs suggest that they are failing to make a dent in the problems they were designed to solve. Even Head Start, probably the most popular federal initiative, has been unable to close the large gaps in achievement between poor children and their advantaged peers. Yet Congress has been consistently unwilling to overhaul or discontinue any education program, regardless of its lack of effectiveness. Every federal program can mobilize a devoted constituency on its behalf, and even the smallest programs have kept their federal funds flowing.

Here is a suggestion for the candidates: fix existing federal education programs before telling school boards, principals, teachers, and parents how to run local schools. There is no reason to believe that the president or Congress is well-suited to decide who should teach, what should be taught, or how schools should be organized. Nor do we know of any evidence that the U.S. Department of Education is in a better position to direct local schools than the people who work in them and send their children to learn there. And, frankly, taking on vast new responsibilities before fulfilling existing obligations is indefensible for any government at any level.

Before launching bold education initiatives, the federal government should follow a simple rule: improve what it does now before attempting anything new. Even then, Washington should never impose new programs on local authorities without clear evidence that the proposed intervention will improve children’s education.

The two most important federal categorical programs—special education and Title I—need to be overhauled. Both could be changed by the president and Congress in ways that would help the children who are their intended beneficiaries.

Special Education

Special education serves 5.2 million students at a cost of about $43 billion a year. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975, established the right of all handicapped children to receive “a free and appropriate education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.” In addition to creating a host of new legal rights, the legislation mandated specific procedures for placing students in special education programs, including designing individual educational plans for each student. The act also declared Congress’s intent eventually to fund 40 percent of the costs of special education services beyond the regular school program. But Washington has never come close to that share. It now contributes some $5.2 billion, about 12 percent of special education’s national total—and $12 billion short of the promised 40 percent. The rest comes out of regular state and local education revenues. In a 1997 study of nine representative school districts, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute reported that special education spending rose from 3.6 percent of school budgets in 1967 to 19 percent in 1996.

Special education costs are likely to escalate even further. The legal rights supporting special education continue to multiply, mainly through court rulings. To cite one example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act exempts medical care from the services school districts must provide handicapped students. But it does require districts to provide the “related services” students need to attend and to benefit from school. In 1999, the Supreme Court blurred the line between medical care and these related services in a case involving a 16-year-old student who is paralyzed from the waist down. When attending school, the boy requires constant, one-on-one care, with a nurse monitoring a ventilator, catheterizing urine, and suctioning the boy’s tracheotomy. The local school district paid for a full-time educational aide for the boy, but refused to cover the nursing expense, claiming it was medical treatment as defined by IDEA. The court ruled that the nursing care fell under the category of “related services” and ordered the district to pay.

Placing too many slow learners into special education is also driving costs skyward. A little more than half of all special education students are classified LD, or learning disabled. This category of disability includes students with legitimate learning problems, but it also serves as a catch-all for youth struggling in regular school programs. Special education serves 21.1 percent of students in Boston and 19.7 percent in Indianapolis. A 1994 New York Times report noted that thousands of students in New York City were mislabeled as LD, with each costing $19,202 to educate, compared with $6,394 for students not in special education. Later that year, the city’s board of education reported that schools with the highest rates of violence also had the highest share of special education students. Critics charged that special education had become a “dumping ground” for youngsters with severe behavior problems.

The question is whether problems with the regular education system, rather than children’s disabilities, are driving placements in special education. Alice Parker, California’s director of special education, estimates that as many as 250,000 of the state’s special education students are designated as learning disabled because of reading difficulties stemming from poor instruction. “They have not been taught how to read,” Parker declared in the Los Angeles Times. G. Reid Lyon of the National Institute for Child Health and Development summarizes the tragedy succinctly: “Learning disabilities have become a sociological sponge to wipe up the spills of general education.”

Whether children benefit from special education is unknown. A 1999 study found no significant achievement differences between LD children in special education and those in regular classrooms. And according to statistics from the Department of Education, only 4 percent of students diagnosed with learning disabilities in 1994 returned to regular classrooms.

Title I

Title I, the biggest federal education program for grades K-12, costs about $8.4 billion a year. Passed in 1965, it provides extra funds to help educate poor children. The money goes first to state education departments, which distribute it to school districts, which give it to schools with the highest concentration of poor students. Since 1965, more than $100 billion has been spent on Title I. Although poor children have made some progress in the interval, it is difficult to attribute their progress to Title I funding. For one thing, Title I is a funding stream, not a program with a specific educational strategy. Districts and schools use the funding in a variety of ways, and it is commingled with state and local programs and funds.

Unfortunately, little has been learned since 1965 about the conditions under which poor children make the most progress. Research has been inconsistent, sporadic, and unable to identify the most effective classroom strategies. Studies have not used rigorous scientific methods, such as the random assignment of students to treatment and control groups. Notwithstanding the limits of this research, two findings about the Title I program stand out. On achievement tests, poor children who do not receive Title I services score about the same as those who do. Also troubling, a large share of Title I funding is spent before it reaches the classroom. Michael Kirst of Stanford University found that federal funds financed 70 percent of the state education agency in Texas in 1972. Other studies suggest that Title I—whatever its effects on poor children—has continued to fund the expansion of state bureaucracies. Paul T. Hill discovered that federal programs supplied 41 percent of operating revenues for state agencies in 1993, contributing to what he called the “colonization” of state departments of education. Speaking of state departments of education, Hill concluded, “Many have no real agenda beyond keeping federal funds flowing.”

The formula that dictates where Title I funds go has presented several problems. In the 1990s, Congress recognized that Title I monies were going to most districts in the country, including many well-off districts, instead of being targeted to the poorest schools. But efforts to concentrate Title I funding have produced some perverse effects. In many urban districts, a public school must be at least 60 percent poor to qualify for federal Title I aid. Thus, if a poor student’s family moves to a slightly better neighborhood and the student enrolls in the local public school where “only” half the children are poor, the school will not be a Title I school and will receive no federal aid at all. Unlike the federal funding of higher education, where federal dollars follow the student, Title I dollars reward concentrated economic segregation.

Principles of Reform

In 1965, the federal government made a commitment to poor children that it would help them receive a quality education in American schools. In 1975, it made a similar commitment to handicapped youngsters. But neither promise has been kept. As the 2000 campaign heats up, we suggest the following principles to guide candidates who genuinely want to improve the role of the federal government in education.

First, fix existing federal programs. Make sure that programs like Title I and special education provide better schooling for the children they serve. An essential step is for Congress to require methodologically sound evaluations to determine what is working and what is without beneficial effects for students.

Second, bring mandates in line with the revenues required to meet them. In special education, this means either cutting back on the legislative mandate or boosting spending to fulfill its requirements. Imagine what would happen if the federal government were to assume the full costs for special education (and enact reasonable controls so that districts and states avoid over-labeling to get federal dollars). Districts would be free to use $37 billion of their own money to reduce class size, hire new teachers, train their staff, add technology, or do whatever was most needed in their own schools.

Third, send federal education money to schools by the most direct route possible. Federal initiatives are designed to help students, not to pump up bureaucracies.

Fourth, resist the temptation to regulate curriculum materials, classroom instruction, the training and hiring of teachers, school staffing patterns, school disciplinary codes, and the myriad other decisions about schooling that can best be made by local decisionmakers.

Using these four simple principles, a new administration and a new Congress have an historic opportunity to carve out a productive federal role in education. If they seize it—if they make existing federal programs work as intended and remove burdensome rules and regulations associated with them—they can unleash the energies of local schools on behalf of the children they serve.