January 3, 2020
By Matt Beienburg

The next Roaring 20s are about to take us… back to 1965? 

Well, depending on whose advice we heed, they might.

For those who’ve been keeping score at home or who saw Education Week’s colorful coverage over the holidays—titled “Education Spending: What Democratic Candidates Want vs. Reality, in Charts”—you know that “four candidates have made the same pledge to triple Title I, the single-largest [federal] program for public schools at the U.S. Department of Education, which has a $72.8 billion budget. Another candidate has pledged to quadruple Title I.”

Promising to pour vast new sums of federal funding into education might make for an exciting New Year’s resolution, but if history is any guide, these proposals look less like a carefully crafted improvement plan and more like those 80% of resolutions: ready to fly off the rails by February.

In their new book, The Not-So-Great Society, Heritage Foundation scholars Jonathan Butcher and Lindsey Burke assemble an all-star cast of contributors whose short essays offer a glimpse into this future federal bonanza…by looking at the one Washington already unleashed in 1965.

As the book’s opening guest essayist Dr. Ben Scafidi documents, in the half century since Lyndon Johnson pushed through his signature education legislation, inflation adjusted federal spending per student has increased nearly tenfold, helping to fuel the surge in K-12 per pupil spending from all sources from $2,763 in 1960 to $13,119 as of 2016. 

The result of this massive infusion of funds? As Stanford contributor Dr. Eric Hanushek sums up in his essay, “The remarkable aspect is that reading and math performance in 2012 looks virtually unchanged from four decades before.” Perhaps worse yet—given the very purpose of federal intervention—“the achievement gap in the United States is as wide today as it was in 1971,” Harvard’s Dr. Paul Peterson starkly puts it in his own chapter.

Unfortunately, however, the fruits of federal spending have not simply been ineffective, the authors point out: Instead, they have often bound schools in regulatory red tape. Thanks to the labyrinth of compliance requirements attached to federal grants, the authors note that while “the federal government only funds 8 percent of K-12 education…federal regulations far exceed the 8 percent of the rules schools have to follow.” As highlighted in the book, the U.S. government’s own Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that federal dollars went to fund state-level administrative bureaucracies—rather than going directly to classrooms—at four times the rate of state dollars, thanks in part to federal regulatory requirements.

More worryingly still, the authors observe how the ostensibly careful planning by federal experts has badly distorted the education system throughout students’ academic careers. EdChoice’s Jason Bedrick observes in the book, for example, that in the wake of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (the 2002 reauthorization of LBJ’s original 1965 legislation), federally imposed testing requirements helped induce nearly half of elementary districts to reduce the time they devoted to subjects outside of math and English, including science, social studies and physical education. Similarly, at the level of higher education, the book’s contributors note that federal designs to make college more affordable have likewise triggered unintended consequences—citing, for example, a New York Federal Reserve study where “researchers found that every dollar that an institution receives in subsidized federal loans leads to a tuition increase of 60 cents.” (The book documents that thanks to such factors, per pupil spending at public four-year universities has rocketed from $3,690 in 1990 to $10,230 in 2018, even as undergraduates have decreased the amount of time spent studying from 40 hours a week in 1960 to 27 in 2010.)

These represent a mere handful of the sobering facts seeded throughout the book, whose final chapters present a host of options to improve educational offerings in America—from education savings accounts (ESAs) and classics-based academies at the K-12 level to accreditation reform and income sharing agreements (ISAs) for college borrowers. 

Policymakers and the public would do well to read and remember many of the key themes of this work. At the very least, before proposing to massively multiply existing federal programs in the 2020s, political leaders ought to familiarize themselves with the costs and consequences of such efforts over the last 50 years. The Not-So-Great Society is an excellent place to start.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

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