Debunking the big myth on education

ARLINGTON, VA. — ARLINGTON, Va. - Observation and common sense have told me for years that there is no relationship between the amount of money spent on education and student achievement. Now a new study to be released today by the Cato Institute provides irrefutable facts that lead to the same conclusion.

Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst for Cato, notes that while federal spending on education has ballooned from about $25 billion in 1965 (adjusted for inflation) to more than $108 billion in 2002, the promise of improved performance in the classroom and better grades remains flat. "Math and reading scores have stagnated," writes Mr. McCluskey, "graduation rates have flat-lined, and researchers have shown several billion-dollar federal programs to be failures."


Will that awaken politicians to cut these failed programs and return education authority to the states? Not in an election year it won't, because politicians believe education is an issue that gets them votes, even though, as the Cato study shows, they have failed miserably to improve it.

More than 36 federal departments and organizations run major education programs, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. What are they doing with the money if so much of it fails to produce the promised results?


Why is a school system that dates as far back as the Massachusetts Colony's 1647 Old Deluder Satan Act, which established the first compulsory and partially public education (and was intended to ensure that all members of the colony were sufficiently literate to read the Bible, enabling them to "fend off the inducements of Satan"), turning out so many functional illiterates who so willingly give in to all sorts of modern temptations?

Mostly, it is because state and local authority over education has been gradually usurped by the federal government, which has no constitutional authority to run or dictate to local schools. But as Washington has gradually claimed more power over education, the states have been able to exercise less and have been forced to succumb to increasing amounts of federal regulation in exchange for federal dollars taken from their citizens in the first place.

The top six departments engaged in education spending and the amounts they spent in thousands of current dollars in 1965 and 2002 are as follows: Health and Human Services ($1,027,537 in '65, $22,858,490 in '02); Education ($1,000,567 in '65, $46,324,352 in '02; Agriculture ($768,927 in '65, $11,896,064 in '02); Defense ($587,412 in '65, $4,749,222 in '02); Energy ($442,434 in '65, $3,625,124 in '02); and Labor ($230,041 in '65, $6,364,200 in '02). Even after programs and spending had shown lack of results, only a very few were removed in the last 39 years.

It's the "one-size-fits-all, we-know-what's-best-for-you" mentality of Washington that has some states complaining about the No Child Left Behind Act's mandate that demands states squeeze students through standardized tests and achievement models into a mold designed by politicians and administered by bureaucrats. When these strategies fail, the government mostly does not end or change them; instead, it throws more money at them.

One of the justifications for this socialistic redistribution of education money is the egalitarian objective of ensuring that the poor get their fair share and supposedly improve their chances of escaping poverty. But the Cato study again proves the failure of this thinking. Statistics show no correlation between the amounts of education money spent and a decline in the poverty levels in individual states.

As the Cato study concludes, the federal government should drop out of education and return the money and power for instructing children to the state and individual communities. Education achievement was better when it was practiced in the little red schoolhouse and didn't come as it does today from the big White House and its Cabinet agencies.

The billions wasted on education since President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society has been a financial and educational disaster, not to mention a violation of the Constitution.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.