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Big government involvement in health care debate should extend to public education


AP Photo/Danny Johnston

The country is split on the subject of federal control of our health care.  Recent polls suggest 52% are against increasing federal control of health care and about 40% are for it.   If a poll were taken today about increased federal control of our children’s public education, where would the percentages end up?

Some Americans are probably not aware that public schools have nearly always been locally controlled and paid for via the state, city, and school district.  Here is a good synopsis given on the federal government website of the history of local and federal roles: 

The responsibility for K-12 education rests with the states under the Constitution. There is also a compelling national interest in the quality of the nation's public schools. Therefore, the federal government, through the legislative process, provides assistance to the states and schools in an effort to supplement, not supplant, state support. The primary source of federal K-12 support began in 1965 with the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
ESEA authorizes grants for elementary and secondary school programs for children of low-income families; school library resources, textbooks and other instructional materials; supplemental education centers and services; strengthening state education agencies; education research; and professional development for teachers.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is a reauthorization of ESEA. The law's express purposes are to raise achievement for all students and to close the achievement gap. This is done through accountability, research-based instruction, flexibility and options for parents, so that no child is left behind.  

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), pushed by President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy, increased federal involvement in schools.  Since then, federal dollars put into public education have increased exponentially. 

  • Pre-NCLB spending on public education by the federal government was 6% or $20 billion
  • Percentages of funding levels from the 2004-2005 school year, post-NCLB: 45.6% of public school funding came from the state level, 37.1% came from the local level, and 8.3% came from the federal government
  • The federal role increased in the 2007-2008 school year to 8.9%
  • The federal contribution to public education in 2008-2009 went down to 7.8% technically, but that does not include the $96.8 billion in federal stimulus spending. 
  • The federal contribution to education spending in the 2009-2010 school year increased to about 10.5%, around $46.2 billion.   This is in addition to a recent proposal by Senator Harkin (D-Iowa) for an additional $23 billion in funds to help public schools avoid more layoffs. 

The latest push for increased federal involvement in public education comes from Race to the Top (RttT).  RttT is President Obama’s public education reform competition which has states competing for large amounts of federal money.  In exchange, it requires states to adopt common core standards and assessments, create assessment systems to measure student progress, increase teacher effectiveness and distribution to all schools, and to develop ways to turn around the lowest-achieving schools.

States are being asked to change their own state laws regarding charter schools and how they train, evaluate, and compensate teachers to align individual state laws with federal reform goals.  The competing states must adopt national standards and assessments as well.  There is a district-level Race to the Top which will bypass states who do not participate, like Alaska and Texas.  These programs only serve to increase the role of the federal government in public education.   Additionally, the federal government is eying the reauthorization and tweaking of NCLB as early as this year which will open the door further to increased federal control and increased federal dollars to pay for it.

In President Obama’s 2011 education budget proposal, "cradle to college" programs take center stage.  President Obama’s administration has recently taken over the entire college student loan business in the newly passed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that was amended by the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. There is also the funding of Promise Neighborhoods  which provide health, social, and education services to all inhabitants of a neighborhood including infants and adults. 

But, putting aside the question as to whether there should be an increased role for the federal government in public education, is there any evidence to support the conviction that an increased federal government role would even increase student learning?  A recent article on by Andrew J. Coulson asks and answers that very question with this very instructive chart comparing federal spending and National Assessment of Educational Progress scores over the years. As the chart suggests, federal funding for education has skyrocketted just as test scores have flatlined. 


As a country, the proposal that the federal government increase its involvement in health care was debated heatedly, as it should have been.  Our children’s future via the public education system demands the same attention and exchanges. 

Details of the 2011 Education Budget proposal


  • Michael 5 years ago

    But the unions always claim that the problem is money, and they just need more of it. Are you saying this is not true?!?

    That last chart says it all.

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