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The Issue

Americans enjoy—and have even come to expect—customization in nearly every aspect of our lives. From our music to our mochas; from transportation to television, we expect personalized services. We also expect goods and services to become better and more affordable as the years go by. Yet in K–12 education, the expectation is exactly reversed: because many states still operate school systems on a residential assignment model, most parents expect that their children will be required to attend the brick-and-mortar school closest to where they live. That assumption often drives decisions about where a family will purchase a home—a “school choice” option for those who can afford it. Although 59 school choice programs operate in 28 states and the District of Columbia—representing tremendous progress on the advancement of school choice over the past decade—nearly 90 percent of children attend public schools, many of which were assigned to them based on their zip code. While some neighborhood schools are excellent, every child should have a choice in which school they attend. The current absence of options for most families—and the inability to “vote with their feet”—has left public schools in the privileged position of the near-monopolist; they receive a steady stream of students and dollars regardless of how well or poorly they perform, creating little incentive for innovation and improvement. When it comes to something as important as their children’s education, parents must check their expectations for choice and customization at the schoolhouse door. That lack of choice is a critical piece of the puzzle that is American K–12 educational underperformance, as is overly prescriptive federal interference in local schools.

America’s unimpressive educational position exists despite massive growth in federal intervention in education over the past half-century. Per pupil federal expenditures on education have nearly tripled in real terms, reflecting the dozens of federal education programs that exist today. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), last reauthorized in 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is a continuation of 50 years of growing federal intervention in education. As the eighth reauthorization of the ESEA, ESSA continued to authorize numerous federal programs and high levels of spending, maintaining federal intervention at the expense of state and local control.

Reading proficiency rates among 17-year-old students—for the most part high school seniors—have remained unchanged since the early 1970s, actually declining one point on a 500-point scale since 1971. Achievement in mathematics has similarly seen stagnant performance. Moreover, achievement gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers still persist, as do gaps between white and minority children. Graduation rates for disadvantaged children have not improved. These lackluster academic outcomes mean that 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.

In 2016, taxpayers will spend on average roughly $156,000 per child from the time he enters kindergarten until the time he finishes high school. Families should have greater control of this investment. Giving families the power to choose safe and effective schools for their children and to direct their dollars to education options matched to their children’s unique learning needs will encourage innovation and improvement. Most importantly, it will ensure children can find an education that works for them, so that they can reach their fullest potential. It is time to move educational control out of Washington, DC, and back to families and local communities.


Federal Policy:

Allow States to Opt Out of the Programs Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Restore Decision-Making Authority to State and Local Leaders. Instead of improving educational outcomes for children, the nation’s largest K–12 education law has resulted in federal regulations that bind the hands of state and local school leaders. The law has grown state-level bureaucracy, increased costs for local school districts, and accelerated federal education spending. While little improvement has originated from Washington, many states have demonstrated 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 the Every Student Achieves Act entirely through proposals like the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act and use education dollars in a way that best meets the needs of local students.

Reduce the Size and Scope of the Department of Education by Eliminating Ineffective and Duplicative Programs and Consolidating Other Programs. Policymakers should give states immediate relief from the Every Student Achieves Act by allowing them to opt out of the law entirely. At the same time, federal policymakers should work to streamline the underlying law by eliminating duplicative and ineffective programs. In all, the Department of Education operates more than 100 competitive and formula grant programs. To restore good constitutional governance in education, Congress should consolidate or eliminate the vast majority of programs operated by the department, beginning with those that are duplicative and ineffective, on the way to removing federal intervention in education in deference to states, local leaders, and parents.

Prevent Any New Federal Funding of National Standards and Assessments. Over the past six years, the Obama Administration has used a combination of carrots and sticks to prod states to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). The CCSSI is an effort to establish national education standards and tests to define what every child in public schools across the country will learn. The effort to nationalize standards and tests represents one of the most significant federal overreaches into education in history and poses a grave threat to educational freedom in America’s schools. Federal policymakers should work to prevent any additional federal funding from being appropriated either to further fund Common Core or to nationalize standards and assessments in schools across the country. At the same time, federal policymakers who want to preserve educational liberty should lend as much rhetorical support as possible to the principle that education is rightly the domain of parents and teachers and that decisions about what is taught in the classroom should be made at the local level, not by the distant federal Department of Education.

Allow States to Make Their Title I and IDEA Dollars Portable in Order to Empower Parents with Choice in Education. Millions of children across the country are trapped in low-performing government schools assigned to them based on their zip code. States across the country are working to empower more families with school choice, and well over 300,000 children today attend a private school of choice thanks to vouchers, tuition tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts. Although school choice policy is primarily the domain of states and localities, federal policymakers can play an important role in reshaping existing federal education programs to make choice a priority. 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 special needs portable to follow a child to the school of choice—public, private, virtual, or homeschool. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, appropriately under the jurisdiction of Congress due to the nature of the District of Columbia, should be expanded to all children living in the nation’s capital to enable them to attend schools of choice that meet their unique learning needs.

Recognize that Parents and Private Preschool Providers Should be the First and Second Options for Families’ Early Education Needs, and Avoid Any Incentives to Expand Government Preschool. To achieve excellence in early education, policymakers must abandon the presumption that government preschool is preferable to family care or the private provision of care. Families are children’s first educators, and government programs cannot replace the benefits that children receive from being raised in a stable two-parent home. Federal and state policymakers interested in maintaining the role of families and civil society in providing early education and care for children should resist efforts to expand federal preschool and child care. More government preschool is not the answer to helping America’s children succeed, and any efforts to expand federal preschool initiatives should be opposed. Large-scale federal preschool initiatives such as Head Start have failed to provide children from low-income families with quality early education options. Congress should sunset Head Start over a period of 10 years until federal funding for the program is eliminated. The sunset provision would provide states with adequate time to determine whether they need to provide additional state funding to subsidize care for children from low-income families, and would have the net effect of situating subsidized early education and care programs closer to the students they serve.

Decouple Federal Financing from Accreditation. Without question, America’s system of higher education needs dramatic and lasting reform, but accreditation continues to impede such a transformation. If higher education is to keep pace with the demands of future economies, the metrics used to value an education must place a greater emphasis on rating and credentialing specific courses and acquired skills, not institutions. The policy advanced by the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act, authored by Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) and Representative Ron DeSantis (R–FL), would sever the link between student loans and grants and the outdated de facto federal accreditation system. Such a reform would create competition by granting states the ability to establish their own systems of accreditation, and would enable students to take their student aid to individual courses instead of consigning them to full degree programs, enabling students to craft customized higher education experiences. Federal policymakers could also decouple accreditation and federal funding (student loans) through amendments to the Higher Education Act (HEA), eliminating the necessity that colleges be accredited by the federal government–sanctioned system. This reform would allow independent accrediting institutions to enter the market, thereby providing students with numerous options for obtaining degrees or credentials and shaping their college experience.

State Policy:

Expand Parental Choice in Education by Establishing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). States should follow the lead of Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and establish ESAs. Through ESA options, states deposit a portion of the money that the state would have spent on a child in a public school into a parent-controlled, restricted-use savings account. Parents can then use those dollars to pay for any education-related service, product, or provider, including private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, textbooks, curricula, and college courses, among other education expenditures. Notably, parents can roll over unused funds from year to year to save for anticipated future education-related expenses, such as high school or college tuition.

Allow Parents to Deposit Title I Dollars into State or District School Choice Options. States should establish education choice options, such as vouchers, tuition tax credit scholarships, and ESAs, and then allow Title I dollars (through the federal Title I portability reform described above) to be deposited into those options. For example, states should establish ESAs, and then under a federal Title I portability option, choose to allow parents to deposit their Title I funds into their child’s ESA. In Nevada, students from low-income families who participate in the ESA option will have $5,700 annually deposited into their accounts beginning in the 2015–2016 school year. If Title I portability were established as federal policy, Nevada could then opt into the portability arrangement, and parents could have an additional amount (likely close to $1,000) deposited into their ESA, taking their account distribution closer to $6,700 annually, greatly increasing their education purchasing power.


Protect Homeschooling and Implement Policies that Empower More Families to Homeschool. Legal rights to homeschooling have been established nationwide, facilitating the growth of home-based instruction. Presently, homeschooling is legal in every state. Policymakers should continue to protect parents’ rights to homeschool their children and enact reforms that remove barriers to homeschooling. In order to provide meaningful protections to homeschooling families, policymakers should avoid restrictive regulations at all levels of schooling. Policies should recognize the educational contribution of homeschooling and ensure that the freedom to homeschool is permanently protected and fostered.

Exit the Common Core National Standards and Tests. State leaders should fully exit Common Core. States should withdraw from the Common Core standards and aligned national tests, re-adopt prior state standards, and strengthen those standards by borrowing from the best standards in other states, with input from parents, teachers, university scholars, and industry leaders. States and local school districts can successfully improve their standards and assessments without surrendering control to Washington. State policy should advance systemic reforms that encourage transparency of outcomes while empowering parents with school choice. Common Core national standards and tests—the adoption of which was heavily incentivized by the Obama Administration—have not made public schools accountable to families; rather, they have made schools and states more responsive to Washington, DC. Common Core national standards and tests represent a one-size-fits-all approach that tends toward mediocrity and standardization, undercutting the pockets of excellence that currently exist across the country.

Facts and Figures

  • Nearly three-quarters of four-year-old children are enrolled in some form of preschool program. Further federal provision of preschool is unnecessary.
  • The federal government operates some 45 preschool and day care programs that are estimated to cost taxpayers more than $20 billion annually.
  • The federal government’s own research found that the largest federal preschool program, Head Start, failed to improve participating children’s cognitive abilities, their parents’ parenting practices, their behavior, or their access to health care.
  • The United States spent more than $620 billion—including federal, state, and local expenditures—on K–12 education in 2011–2012.
  • On average, taxpayers spend more than $12,000 per pupil every year in public schools.
  • Teaching and non-teaching staff positions in public schools across the country have increased at far greater rates than student enrollment over the past four decades. From 1970 to 2015, enrollment in the nation’s public schools increased just 9 percent; over the same time period, total education staff increased 83 percent (non-teaching staff increased 133 percent and teaching staff increased 52 percent). Teachers now comprise just half of all public-education employees.
  • A Department of Education evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program showed that graduation rates among participating students were 21 percentage points higher than graduation rates among their peers who were awarded, but did not use a scholarship to attend private school.
  • Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have some form of private school choice option, with 59 program options such as vouchers, tuition tax credit scholarships, and ESAs now in operation.
  • Over the past decade, from the 2004–2005 school year to the 2014–2015 school year, the number of Pell Grant recipients increased 55 percent. The growth in the number of students receiving Pell Grants drove overall program spending, which increased from roughly $16 billion to $30 billion over the same time period.
  • The average college student leaves school with more than $29,000 in debt, and total student loan debt in the United States now exceeds $1.12 trillion.

Selected Additional Resources

Lindsey M. Burke, “From Piecemeal to Portable: Transforming Title I into a Student-Centered Support System,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3066, September 28, 2015.

Lindsey M. Burke, “A National Standards Exit Strategy for States,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3437, December 21, 2011.

Lindsey M. Burke, “Reauthorizing No Child Left Behind: Four Recommendations to Advance Federalism in Education,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4314, December 8, 2014.

Lindsey M. Burke, “The Value of Parental Choice in Education: A Look at the Research,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4173, March 18, 2014.

Lindsey M. Burke and Stuart M. Butler, “Accreditation: Removing the Barrier to Higher Education Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2728, September 21, 2012.

Lindsey M. Burke and David B. Muhlhausen, “Head Start Impact Evaluation Report Finally Released,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3823, January 10, 2013.

Lindsey M. Burke and Rachel Sheffield, “Continuing the School Choice March: Policies to Promote Family K–12 Education Investment,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2683, April 25, 2012.

Jonathan Butcher and Lindsey M. Burke, “Expanding Education Choices: From Vouchers and Tax Credits to Savings Accounts,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 136, July 26, 2013.