American education is in crisis. Every year, millions of children pass through America’s schools without receiving a quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, compete in the increasingly competitive global economy, and maintain the blessings and responsibilities of a free society. For example, only 63 percent of African–American students and 66 percent of Hispanic students graduate from high school. This widespread failure imposes unquantifiable costs on individual lives and our communities. It also imperils our national security.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), last reauthorized a decade ago as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was intended to increase accountability and close achievement gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers. Yet, despite federal per-pupil expenditures more than doubling and a $2 trillion taxpayer investment since the mid-1960s, academic achievement and graduation rates have remained relatively flat, achievement gaps between low-income and upper-income children and white and minority children persist, and American students still rank in the middle with their international peers.
Taxpayers will spend $120,000 on the average student entering kindergarten today before that student finishes high school. Families should have greater control of this investment. Giving families the power to choose safe and effective schools for their children will encourage the innovation and improvement that American education needs for the 21st century. It is time to move educational control out of Washington, D.C., and back to families and local communities.
- Allow states to opt-out of No Child Left Behind and restore decision-making authority to state and local leaders to encourage effective state-level reform. For the past 45 years, the federal government has been wholly unable to effect improvements in academic outcomes. Growth in federal involvement and spending, typified through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (today known as No Child Left Behind) has only created a tremendous compliance burden for states. While little improvement has originated from Washington, states such as Florida, acting as laboratories of reform, have proven that they can move the needle on educational achievement.Federal policymakers should work to ensure that states are free to pursue education reforms that are in the best interests of local children by limiting bureaucratic red tape and empowering state and local leaders to prioritize how they spend education dollars. Specifically, policymakers should allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind entirely and use education dollars in a way that would best meet the needs of local children.
- Drastically reduce Washington's role in education by eliminating ineffective and duplicative programs. Policymakers should provide states immediate relief from No Child Left Behind by allowing states to opt out of the 600-page law entirely. At the same time, federal policymakers should work to clean up the underlying law and eliminate duplicative and ineffective programs. The Department of Education now operates more than 150 federal education programs, 80 of which fall under No Child Left Behind alone. Many of these programs are duplicative or ineffective, and many more are not the appropriate role of the federal government. Federal policymakers should eliminate and consolidate the vast majority of programs authorized under the law.
- Reform federal education programs to empower parents with school choice. Millions of children across the country are trapped in low-performing government schools, assigned to them based on their zip code. School choice gives families the opportunity to choose a school that best meets their child’s needs. States across the country are moving to empower more families with school choice, and more than 200,000 children today attend a private school of their choice thanks to vouchers, tuition tax credits, education savings accounts, and other school choice options.Federal policymakers should allow states to make education dollars associated with major federal education programs portable. States should be allowed to make their Title I dollars for low-income children and their Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) dollars for children with disabilities portable to follow a child to the school of the child’s choice—public, private, virtual, or home school. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, appropriately under the jurisdiction of Congress due to the nature of the District of Columbia, should be expanded to allow more children to escape the poor-performing and often unsafe D.C. Public Schools and attend a private school of their choice. To improve American education, state and local leaders should:
-Expand private school choice by enacting or expanding such options as scholarships, vouchers, education tax credits for tuition or scholarship donations, or education savings accounts.
-Lift caps on charter schools and pass strong charter-school laws to encourage a vibrant charter sector that also allows for fully online charter schools.
-Expand public-school choice options such as school choice within and among school districts.
-Expand online learning opportunities through statewide virtual schools, fully online charter schools, and education savings accounts that can be used for tuition at private online K–12 schools in order to customize programs to meet students’ needs and allow students to work at their own pace.
-Create and expand education savings accounts such as those offered in Arizona and for post-secondary education.
-Protect home schooling and implement policies that empower more families to home school.
Facts & Figures
- Estimated national high school graduation rates show that as many as one in four students drop out before graduation.
- The United States spent more than $550 billion—more than 4 percent of GDP—on K–12 education in 2010.
- On average, the United States spends more than $10,000 per pupil every year in public schools.
- Since 1970, average per-pupil expenditures in American public schools have more than doubled (after adjusting for inflation), yet long-term measures of students’ academic achievement like test scores and graduation rates show very little improvement.
- Total federal spending on K–12 education topped $47 billion in 2010. Total education spending included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was nearly $100 billion.
- A Department of Education evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program showed that graduation rates among participating students were higher than graduation rates among their peers who did not use a voucher to attend private school.
- Forty states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws, 46 states have policies supporting public school choice, and over 1.5 million children are home-schooled. In addition, millions of students now benefit from online learning.
- Public school choice allows parents more opportunity to choose the best public schools for their children; 46 states have enacted some form of open enrollment to facilitate choice within the public education system.
- Charter schools are publicly funded schools that agree to meet certain performance standards set by the government but are otherwise free from the rules and regulations of the traditional public school system; 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools.
- Online learning allows students to learn on the computer instead of in a classroom; 9 percent of all public schools nationwide offer some distance learning, and 15 percent of rural communities offer distance education.
- In Florida, which has implemented the most sweeping education reforms of any state over the past decade, the biggest gains have been among minority students. As of 2009, Florida’s Hispanic students had higher fourth grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam than the average of all students in 31 states.
Selected Additional Resources
Lindsey M. Burke, “Reducing the Federal Footprint on Education and Empowering State and Local Leaders,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2565, June 2, 2011.
Lindsey M. Burke, “National Education Standards and Tests: Big Expense, Little Value,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3157, February 18, 2011.
Lindsey M. Burke and Jena Baker McNeill, “‘Educate to Innovate’: How the Obama Plan for STEM Education Falls Short,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2504, January 5, 2011.
Lindsey M. Burke and Rachel Sheffield, “School Choice in America 2011: Educational Opportunity Reaches New Heights,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2597, August 17, 2011.
Jennifer A. Marshall, “Freeing Schools from Washington’s Education Overreach,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3214, April 6, 2011.
Jason Richwine, “The Myth of Racial Disparities in Public School Funding,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2548, April 20, 2011.
Heritage Experts on Education