Commentary on the Growth in Federal K-12 Redistributed Tax Dollar Spending

Reihan Salam:

Rather than shift the tax burden from households with children to relatively high-earning households without children, Felix Salmon of Reuters proposes increasing federal education funding. This strikes me as ill-conceived for a number of reasons. If anything, I would suggest that we move in the opposite direction. Though federal spending represents a relatively small share of K-12 spending at present (13 percent of the total as of 2010), this understates the extent of federal influence, as federal mandates shape how much of the remaining spending is disbursed. And so the U.S. has a far more centralized, far more tightly-regulated K-12 system than is commonly understood. The chief virtues of a decentralized system — the potential for innovation as different jurisdictions and educational providers embrace new approaches to instruction, management, compensation, recruitment, and scaling successful approaches, among other things — are greatly undermined by the prescriptiveness of federal education policy, which has grown worse under the Obama administration thanks to its use of policy waivers to impose its vision of education reform on local districts. We thus have the worst of both worlds: we have a theoretically decentralized system plagued by a lack of creativity and experimentation outside of charter schools, which serve fewer than 4 percent of K-12 public school students; and we have a federal government that imposes enormous compliance costs on K-12 schools without actually providing much in the way of resources. Salmon’s strategy is to double down on centralization; let’s keep imposing compliance costs, yet let’s at least do more to finance schools as well. Another approach would be to foster creativity and experimentation by having the federal government take on the tasks to which it is best suited.

As Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute have argued, the federal government could play to its strengths by abandoning its efforts to tightly regulate local schools and instead (a) promote basic research in cognitive science and human learning; (b) serve as a “scorekeeper” that measures educational outcomes and, just as importantly, spending levels across districts and student populations so that the public will have more reliable data on the return on investment; (c) encourage competition and innovation not by prescribing that local communities embrace charter schools or vouchers (though both ideas could do a great deal of good, and state and local electorates ought to embrace these ideas of their own volition) but by addressing the compliance costs created by federal mandates, encouraging alternative paths to teacher certification to expand the teacher talent pool and get around onerous licensing requirement; and (d) develop a bankruptcy-like mechanism that would allow dysfunctional school districts to restructure their obligations without first having to appeal to state education authorities. One of the more attractive aspects of this agenda, incidentally, is that it largely allows contentious questions about the best approach to educating children to state and local officials while providing parents and policymakers with meaningful yardsticks to evaluate the success or failure of different approaches.