Four Failed Federal Education Reforms

Issue Briefs | Education

No. 186
Monday, January 25, 2016
by Lloyd Bentsen IV

Over the years, federal funding of primary and secondary education has increased, while students’ academic performance has flatlined. For instance, the high school reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress show that student performance has remained flat for the past 20 years [see Figure I].

Recent education reform initiatives by several administrations produced, at best, minimal improvements in student performance at a high price to taxpayers. Given its track record, the federal government should get out of the education business.

Federal Education Funding

Federal education funding comes in several forms. While most federal funds go to the states (a total of $37 billion in 2015) for K-12 school districts, $4 billion is devoted to special projects such as educational reforms through initiatives. Though federal money is only 11 percent of total spending on public schools, it comes with a host of strings attached.

Federal spending on elementary and secondary education more than doubled from 1995 to 2003, with a large increase in funding for initiatives such as No Child Left Behind in 2003 [see Figure II]:

  • Federal funding for elementary and secondary education more than doubled from $15 billion in 1995 to $35 billion in 2003, and education initiative funding more than doubled from $2 billion in 2001 to $7 billion in 2003.
  • Total federal education funding increased from $42 billion a year in 2001 to $63 billion in 2003.3
  • Education initiative spending peaked at 20 percent of total federal spending on elementary and secondary education and dropped to 10 percent by 2015.

Both overall funding for elementary and secondary education, as well as spending on education initiatives, began to drop after 2005 due to factors such as the Great Recession of 2007.

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