Talking Points

  • Education in America has significant room for improvement. Over the past half-century, progress in K–12 education has been largely stagnant and college costs have risen at staggering rates as federal subsidies haveballooned.
  • Expanded federal intervention in education has come at the expense of state and local control and  imposed  tremendous compliance burdens on  local schools.  Efforts to impose national standards and tests via Common Core threaten to further expand federal intervention.  It is time to move educational control out of Washington, D.C., and back to families and localcommunities.
  • In 2014, taxpayers will spend on average roughly $140,000 on a child entering kindergarten before that child finishes high school. Families should have greater control of this investment and be empowered to choose schools and educational options that meet their children’s unique learning needs.

The Issue

Over the past half-century, Americans have benefited from remarkable medical breakthroughs, innovations in engineering, and tremendous advancements in technology, yet progress in K–12 education has been largely stagnant. While 4th and 8th graders have made modest improvements in reading and math over the past four decades, those improvements appear to dissipate by the time they are 17 years old. The high school seniors of today fare no better in math and reading than the 12th graders of the early 1970s. Moreover, achievement gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers persist, as do gaps between white and minority children. Graduation rates for disadvantaged children have not improved. Students residing in America’s more affluent suburbs have significant room for improvement as well. According to the Global Report Card, one-third of America’s 50 wealthiest school districts are below the 50th percentile in mathematics. American students rank in the middle of the pack on international assessments of math and reading ability. 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.

America’s unimpressive educational position exists despite the massive growth in federal intervention in education over the past half-century. Per-pupil federal expenditures on education have nearly tripled in terms of real dollars, and more than 100 federal education programs exist today. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), last reauthorized in 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is a continuation of nearly five decades of growing federal intervention in education. As the seventh reauthorization of the ESEA, NCLB was intended to increase accountability and close achievement gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers. Instead, it significantly expanded federal intervention at the expense of state and local control, saddled teachers and school leaders with a tremendous paperwork compliance burden, and has largely failed to effect meaningful educational gains.

In 2014, taxpayers will spend on average roughly $140,000 on a child entering kindergarten before that child 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 the innovation and improvement that American education needs for the 21st century. It is time to move educational control out of Washington, D.C., and back to families and local communities.


Recommendations (Federal Policy)

  1. Allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind and restore decision-making authority to state and local leaders to encourage effective reforms. 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 states and local school leaders. The law has grown state-level bureaucracy, has increased costs for local school districts, and has accelerated federal education spending. While little improvement has originated from Washington, states such as Florida 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 No Child Left Behind 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 children.
  2. 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 No Child Left Behind by allowing them to opt out of the 600-page law entirely. At the same time, federal policymakers should work to clean up the underlying law and eliminate 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 any educational role from the federal government in deference to states and parents.
  3. Prevent any new federal funding of national standards and assessments. Over the past four years, the Obama Administration has used a combination of carrots and sticks to prod states to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). 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 federal Department of Education.

  4. Allow states to make their Title I and IDEA dollars portable in order to empower parents with school choice. Millions of children across the country are trapped in low-performing government schools assigned to them based on their zip code. School choice gives families the opportunity to choose educational options that best meet their child’s learning needs. States across the country are working to empower more families with school choice, and more than 250,000 children today attend a private school of choice thanks to vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts. While 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 disabilities portable to follow a child to the school of choice—public, private, virtual, or homeschool. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, appropriately under the jurisdiction of Congress due to the nature of the District of Columbia, should be expanded to allow more children to escape the poor-performing and often unsafe D.C. public schools and attend a private school of choice.
  5. Recognize that parents and private preschool providers should be the first and second options for families, followed by state programs when necessary, 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 the latest push by the Obama Administration 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.
  6. 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. Federal policymakers should decouple accreditation and federal funding (student loans) through amendments to the Higher Education Act, eliminating the necessity that colleges be accredited by the 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.

Recommendations (State Policy)

  1. Expand private school choice by enacting or expanding such options as tax credits for tuition or scholarship donations, vouchers, online learning, and education savings accounts.
  2. Lift caps on charter schools and pass strong charter-school laws to encourage a vibrant charter sector that also allows for fully online charter schools.
  3. Expand public-school choice options such as school choice within and among school districts.
  4. Expand online learning opportunities through statewide virtual schools, fully online charter schools, and education savings accounts that can be used for tuition at private online K–12 schools in order to customize programs to meet students’ needs and allow students to work at their own pace.
  5. Create and expand education savings accounts such as those offered in Arizona.
  6. Protect homeschooling and implement policies that empower more families to homeschool.
  7. Exit the Common Core national standards and tests in order to restore control of the content taught in local schools to local leaders, teachers, and parents.

Facts & Figures

  • Nearly three-quarters of four-year-old children are enrolled in some form of preschool program. The need for further federal provision of preschool is not clear.
  • The federal government operates some 45 preschool and day care programs that are estimated to cost taxpayers more than $20 billion annually.
  • The 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 $596 billion—including federal, state, and local expenditures—on K–12 education in 2013.
  • On average, the United States spends more than $11,000 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 2010, enrollment in the nation’s public schools increased just 7.8 percent; over the same time period, education staff increased 84 percent. Teachers now comprise just half of all public-education employees.
  • A Department of Education evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program showed that graduation rates among participating students were 21 percentage points higher than graduation rates among their peers who did not use a voucher to attend private school.
  • Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have some form of private school choice, 42 states and D.C. have charter school laws, and over 1.5 million children are homeschooled (roughly 3 percent of the K–12 population). In addition, millions of students now benefit from online learning.
  • Inflation-adjusted Pell Grant spending has increased 158 percent since 2007, largely due to an increase in the number of recipients.
  • The average college student leaves school with more than $25,000 in debt, and total student loan debt in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion.

Selected Additional Resources

Heritage Experts on Education

  • Lindsey Burke

    Will Skillman Fellow in Education

  • Stuart Butler, Ph.D.

    Distinguished Fellow and Director, Center for Policy Innovation

  • Jennifer Marshall

    Director, Domestic Policy Studies

To talk to one of our experts, please contact us by phone at 202-608-1515 or by email.