March 11, 2020
By Nathan Callahan

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” was supposed to elevate poor Americans through a series of welfare programs, with education being a central focus. But now nearly 60 years later, what have been the results of great government involvement in our schools?

A new book from the Heritage Foundation—The Not-So-Great Society—examines the answer to that question. And last week, the book’s editors and several of its contributors joined the Goldwater Institute for a panel discussion event in Scottsdale to discuss their work. Their findings showed a stunning lack of improvement in areas that the Great Society’s education programs were supposed to help, while costs for the programs have ballooned across the board.

Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow and The Not-So-Great Society co-editor Jonathan Butcher talks about the positive difference school choice programs have made in students’ educational outcomes.

At the event, Heritage education policy director Lindsey Burke, who co-edited the volume, talked about the origins of the U.S. Department of Education and the flagship “Head Start” program of the Great Society’s educational push. “Nothing that the Head Start program was purported to do has happened,” Burke explained, and while “we have seen income adjusted federal funding quadruple” since 1965, the results of the program have remained predominantly stagnant.

By contrast with the Great Society’s education programs, education savings accounts (ESA) programs have many successes to show, said fellow editor and Heritage education policy expert Jonathan Butcher. Through ESAs, a state deposits part of a student’s funds from the state education formula into a private account—money that can then be used toward tuition, tutoring, and other educational tools. Butcher—also a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute—said that he believes lawmakers today are more concerned about education spending than educational success. After all, he said, “Washington has spent $2 trillion on education improvement since 1965,” with no appreciable result in educational improvement.

Contributing authors Patrick Wolf and Jason Bedrick also noted the strong performance of school choice programs in the face of continuous pushes for yet more money for public schools. Contrasting with the testimony of anti-school choice pundits who have stated things like “there is no evidence that students in voucher schools get higher test scores” and “the findings for both achievement and attainment are mixed with no clear patterns,” Wolf noted that there are numerous, academic studies showing higher achievement in voucher schools and charter schools.

The panel discusses the impacts–or lack thereof–of the Great Society’s education programs.

Further challenging the idea that more money for public schools was the solution to educational issues, Bedrick noted that the United States is second in educational spending only to Norway, with poorer results than many countries that spent significantly less. Even at a domestic level, Bedrick said that “New York spends 3 times as much as Arizona…for about the same results” in terms of educational achievement. The facts of the matter left a clear message: Money alone does not bring educational success, and if the United States wishes to improve its educational system, bringing competition back to education with school choice initiatives is a great solution.

Contributing author Robert Pondiscio had a somewhat different take than his fellow panelists. “Conservatives’ faith in school choice alone may be misguided,” he said—rather, classroom content deserves a greater share of attention. Ideologically charged educational content such as the “1619 Project” is being integrated into school curricula with little to no parental input, and greater transparency would help give parents more information when it comes to choosing the right educational experience for their child. (Goldwater Institute Director of Education Policy Matt Beienburg recently explored what can be done to increase academic transparency in K-12 schools—you can read his full report here.)

Read more about The Not-So-Great Society here.

Nathan Callahan is a Ronald Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

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