Americans enjoy—and have come to expect—customization in nearly every aspect of their lives. From music to café mochas, from transportation to television, today’s Americans expect personalized services. They also expect goods and services to become better and more affordable with time. 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 simply on their current zip code.
While some neighborhood schools are excellent, all parents should be able to choose the school to which they send their children. 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 a near-monopoly; they receive a steady stream of students and taxpayer dollars regardless of how well or poorly they perform, creating little incentive for improvement, much less innovation and customization. When it comes to 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 spending on, and intervention in, education over the past half-century. Per pupil federal expenditures on education have nearly tripled in real terms, reflecting in part that dozens upon dozens of federal education programs 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 more than 50 years of growing federal intervention in education. As the eighth reauthorization of ESEA, ESSA maintains high levels of federal spending and programs in an effort to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students and their peers.
Yet, while the law improved the worst policy problems of its successor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it retains federal requirements for annual testing of students, includes federally approved accountability plans, and maintains a labyrinthine program structure that concentrates state and local leaders’ attention on compliance with Washington, rather than responsiveness to parents. Ever-growing federal intervention has come at the expense of state and local control, saddled teachers and school leaders with a tremendous paperwork compliance burden, and has failed to effect meaningful educational gains.
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 an 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.
From 2017 onward, taxpayers will spend an average of 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 important, it will ensure that children can gain 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 higher-education subsidies have also increased substantially over the past decade, and now represent 71 percent of all student aid. The federal government now originates and manages more than 90 percent of all student loans. By extension, taxpayers now bear primary responsibility for paying for student loan defaults. A recent evaluation by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that for every one-dollar increase in federally subsidized student loans, tuition increases by 63 cents. As economists David Lucca, Taylor Nadauld, and Karen Shen note, those effects are highly significant “and are consistent with the Bennett Hypothesis,” which posits that federal subsidies encourage universities to raise tuition and fees. Although the benefits of subsidized student loans are concentrated on those who qualify and receive the subsidy, the increased tuition costs are passed on to all students at a university.
The U.S. Department of Education has been wholly ineffective at improving educational outcomes, loading states and local school leaders with a bureaucratic burden that saps time and financial resources and overseeing a subsidized student loan structure that has enabled colleges and universities to raise tuition at breathtaking rates—and placing taxpayers on the hook for loan defaults in the process. Pursuing a package of reforms that begins the important work of making federal education funding limited, targeted, and, as appropriate, student-centered and portable holds the promise to restore state and local control of education and better serve students and taxpayers across the country.
The Trump Administration has signaled its interest in pursuing such long-overdue reforms. The President’s FY 2018 budget request included meaningful reductions in spending, and cuts to programs that are ineffective, duplicative, and not the appropriate domain of the federal government. The budget request called for $9 billion in cuts to the Department of Education’s $68 billion budget, trimming spending at the agency to $59 billion—a 13 percent reduction in discretionary spending. Such efforts demonstrate a commitment to restoring federalism in education, and lay the groundwork for reforms to be pursued moving forward. The Administration has also expressed interest in advancing school choice for children across the country. Creating choice for military families by modernizing the federal Impact Aid Program, establishing options for Native American children attending failing Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools, and providing school choice for children living in the nation’s capital are all federally appropriate vehicles for expanding education choice to hundreds of thousands of children nationwide. In the higher education realm, Congress is likely to consider reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Any reauthorization should include meaningful reductions in federal lending in order to make space for a private lending market to re-emerge, and should include reforms to higher education accreditation.
Policy Proposals (Federal)
Allow States to Opt Out of the Programs Under ESSA, 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—the ESEA, currently known as ESSA—has resulted in federal regulations that bind the hands of state and local school leaders. The law has maintained high levels of state-level bureaucracy, compliance costs for local school districts, and historically high levels of 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 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 decide how they spend education dollars. Specifically, policymakers should allow states to opt out of ESSA 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. Policymakers should give states immediate relief from ESSA by allowing states to opt out of the more than 400-page law entirely. At the same time, federal policymakers should streamline the underlying law by eliminating duplicative and ineffective programs. The Department of Education operates dozens upon dozens of competitive and formula grant programs. To restore good constitutional governance in education, Congress should 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.
Expand Choice in the District of Columbia. The Trump Administration, along with Congress, should work to make education funding in the District of Columbia entirely student-centered and portable, making DC an all-choice district. Congress has two options for achieving this goal: It can either restructure federal funding for DC public schools so that it is student-centered and portable to schools of choice, including private schools; or, it can create a stand-alone education savings account (ESA) program available to all District residents. To more equitably fund education in DC, the Trump Administration should work with Congress to transform DC into an all-choice district by redirecting funding for K–12 education to students, empowering every family in the nation’s capitol to exercise school choice.
Establish School Choice for Children of Military Families. The schooling options available to children of military families can play a role in whether a family accepts an assignment, even factoring into decisions to leave military service altogether. Yet more than half of all active-duty military families live in states with no school choice options at all. According to a recent survey conducted and published by the Military Times, 35 percent of respondents said that dissatisfaction with their child’s education was a “significant factor” in their decision to remain in or leave military service. The Pentagon’s changes to policy in 2016 that enabled families to remain at duty stations for longer time periods were a direct response “to complaints by military parents who are loathe to move if the next duty station has poorly performing schools.” Those complaints may stem from the fact that military children are too often assigned to the district schools closest in proximity to military bases, regardless of whether those schools meet their needs.
Since it pertains to the U.S. military, the $1.3 billion federal Impact Aid program represents one of those few federal education programs that has a constitutional warrant. Instead of filtering the $1.3 billion in federal Impact Aid funding to district schools, and then assigning students to those schools based on where their parents are stationed, Impact Aid dollars should be directed to eligible students. Impact Aid dollars for military-connected children should go directly into a parent-controlled ESA, which the family could then use to pay for any education-related service, product, or provider that meets the specific needs of their child.
Establish Education Savings Accounts for Children Attending Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) Schools. No child should be trapped in a failing school because of where he lives. Native American children attend such low-quality schools that Politico ran a piece titled “How Washington Created the Worst Schools in America.” Funding for BIE schools is unique among K–12 education financing because it is almost entirely federal. BIE schools are directly funded through a combination of Department of the Interior, Department of Education, and Department of Agriculture funds, with the BIE itself operating one-third of the schools, and the other two-thirds being tribally operated. BIE schools have higher per pupil expenditures than traditional public schools. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that “student performance at BIE schools has been consistently below that of public school students, including other Indian students attending public schools.” Parents of students who attend BIE schools should be made eligible for ESAs to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, curricula, textbooks, and a host of other education-related services, products, and providers.
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, restoring revenue responsibility to the states. 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 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, it should 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 credentialing, and would enable students to use their student aid for individual courses instead of consigning them to full degree programs, enabling students to craft customized higher-education experiences.
Federal policymakers could also decouple accreditation from federal funding (student loans) through amendments to the Higher Education Act (HEA), eliminating the requirement 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.
Consolidate the Five Federal Student Loan Programs into a Single Option with a Borrowing Cap. Evidence suggests that the federal government’s overly generous lending policies have led to rampant tuition inflation. Policymakers should take steps to restore the private lending market and limit the federal government’s role in financing a student’s college education. To achieve this, Congress should consider consolidating the five current existing federal loan programs into a single loan option under the current terms of the Graduate Stafford Loans. This loan should also come with an annual and lifetime borrowing cap. This will help to discourage students from excessive borrowing and mitigate continual increases in tuition and fees. Additionally, lower rates of federal borrowing will help insulate taxpayers from bearing the burden of student loan defaults and loan forgiveness programs. Additionally, Congress should eliminate the PLUS Loan program, which allows students to borrow up to the full cost of attendance. This program encourages excessive borrowing on the part of graduate students and parents of undergraduate students, and is one of the greatest contributors to the country’s $1.3 trillion student loan tab.
Eliminate Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Loan-forgiveness policies inject adverse incentives into the higher-education sector and should be eliminated. Students who qualify for loan forgiveness programs are encouraged to borrow, perhaps more than they would otherwise, confident that taxpayers will pick up their left-over tab. Public Service Loan Forgiveness, in particular, is expected to cost American taxpayers $108 billion over the next 10 years, according to the GAO. Furthermore, higher-education policy should not place a financial preference on public-sector work over private-sector work. Congress should eliminate this costly program that hurts American taxpayers and contributes to the ever-expanding student loan bubble.
Policy Proposals (State)
Expand Parental Choice in Education by Establishing Education Savings Accounts. States should follow the lead of Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and Tennesse 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.
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 and offer tax relief to homeschoolers through deductions for education expenses. Homeschooling families provide a valuable contribution to American education, often while incurring a significant financial burden in addition to the the taxes they pay for public education. 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. 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
FACT: School choice could improve educational options for military families.
- Military children are often assigned to the district schools closest in proximity to military bases without consideration for the quality of the education o ered.
- Eighty percent of the 1.2 million school-age military children in the U.S. attend traditional public schools, while 4 percent attend Department of Defense schools located on military bases.
- According to a recent survey conducted and published by Military Times, 35 percent of respondents said that dissatisfaction with their child’s education was a “signi cant factor” in their decision to remain in or leave military service.
- More than half of all active-duty military families live in states with no school choice options at all.
FACT: The average full-time college student spends only 2.76 hours per day on education- related activities.
- During the 2015–2016 school year, the average full-time college student spent only 2.76 hours per day on education-related activities, including 1.18 hours in class and 1.53 hours of research and homework, for a total of 19.32 hours per seven-day week.
- Outstanding student loan debt in the United States stands at $1.3 trillion.
FACT: Academic outcomes for Native American students attending Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools are worse than academic outcomes for their Native American peers in public schools.
- Native American children at BIE schools achieved an average score of 182 on the National Assess- ment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth-grade reading exam in 2011. (The national average score for all students was 220.)
- Native American children attending non-BIE public schools had an average NAEP fourth-grade reading score of 204, some 22 points higher than their BIE peers, the equivalent of two grade levels of learning.
- BIE schools also have graduation rates hovering around 53 percent, well below the national aver- age of 81 percent for all students, and also far below the national average of 69 percent for Native American students.
FACT: Increasing funding for education does not create better educational outcomes.
- District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) receive $29,000 per pupil—the highest per-pupil revenues in the nation—and have one of the lowest, if not the lowest, high school graduation rates.
- The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) provides scholarships for low-income students worth up to $8,256 for K–8 students, and $12,385 for students in grades nine through 12 to attend a school of their choice.
- Students from low-performing public schools who received and used a DC OSP scholarship graduated at a rate 21 percentage points higher than the control group even though the cost of the scholarship is a fraction of per pupil DC public school expenditure.
FACT: Community colleges have a poor track record of getting students on the path to upward mobility.
- Only 38.1 percent of students who enrolled in community college in 2009 earned a two-year or four-year degree within six years.
- While it is often assumed that the low on-time graduation rates are due to most students transfer- ring to four-year institutions, only two in 10 students at public two-year colleges do so.
Selected Additional Resources
Lindsey M. Burke, “Education Savings Accounts for Children Attending Bureau of Indian Education Schools: A Promising Step Forward,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 4537, April 1, 2016.
Lindsey M. Burke, “Reducing Federal Intervention in Education and Moving Toward Student-Centered Policies: 10 Steps for the Incoming Administration,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3177, December 19, 2016.
Lindsey M. Burke and Anne Ryland, “A GI Bill for Children of Military Families: Transforming Impact Aid into Education Savings Accounts,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3180, June 2, 2017.
Lindsey M. Burke et al., “Common Core and the Centralization of American Education” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 169, March 24, 2016.
Lindsey M. Burke and Salim Furth, “Universal Preschool May Do More Harm than Good,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3106, May 11, 2016.
Lindsey M. Burke and Stuart M. Butler, “Accreditation: Removing the Barrier to Higher Education Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2728, September 21, 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.
Mary Clare Reim, “Private Lending: The Way to Reduce Students’ College Costs and Protect Taxpayers,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3203, April 27, 2017.
Mary Clare Reim and Jamie Bryan Hall, “Time to Reform Higher Education Financing and Accreditation,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4668, March 28, 2017.