NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Defining the Federal Role in Education

February 23, 2012

Most Americans are aware of the depreciating quality of public education in this country.  However, as this trend continues downward in relation to American students' education quality compared with foreign competitors, solutions must be sought.  The need for immediate reform is further supplemented by the upcoming debate over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), says the Hoover Institution.

Generally speaking, lawmakers will be forced to choose between three broad courses of action:

  • Continue the trend of increased federal involvement in public education (No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, etc.).
  • Decentralize control over public education back to the states and local governing boards, thereby harnessing the benefits of federalism.
  • Opt for a fundamentally new approach to education, taking advantage of the benefits of federalism while engaging the market-oriented gains from choice.

This first option is not particularly attractive.  Many years of increased federal involvement in education, reaching their peak during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, have yielded minimal returns.  Even those programs targeting specific populations such as low-income neighborhoods and underperforming schools have produced disappointing results.

The second option, which represents a return to pre-modern education policy in which the process was almost entirely guided by local governance, also has questionable benefits.  This sort of devolvement often leaves education at the mercy of self-interested institutions on the local level that, without federal oversight, distort incentives and take advantage of the system.

The inefficacy of these programs underlines the need for foundational change to education policy that incorporates the benefits of federalism with the advantages of choice.

  • Twenty-five percent of parents report moving to a given neighborhood to gain access to a certain school, 11 percent pay for private school, 15 percent enroll their children in parent-selected schools, and 6 percent enroll them in charter schools/homeschooling.
  • This means that more than half of all parents participate in some form of school choice.
  • Long waitlists at parent-selected schools suggests that demand for school choice currently exceed supply.

This form of choice should be expanded so that parents can vote with their feet on good schools.  Federalism should augment this process by ensuring that federal/state funding follows the student -- not the school.

Source: "Defining the Federal Role in Education," Hoover Institution, February 2012.

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