The case for the Department of Education could rest on one or more of three legs: its constitutional appropriateness, the existence of serious problems in education that could be solved only at the federal level, and/or its track record since it came into being. Let us consider these in order.
(1) Is the Department of Education constitutional?
At the time the Constitution was written, education was not even considered a function of local government, let alone the federal government. But the shakiness of the Department of Education’s constitutionality goes beyond that. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the things over which Congress has the power to legislate. Not only does the list not include education, there is no plausible rationale for squeezing education in under the commerce clause. I’m sure the Supreme Court found a rationale, but it cannot have been plausible.
On a more philosophical level, the framers of America’s limited government had a broad allegiance to what Catholics call the principle of subsidiarity. In the secular world, the principle of subsidiarity means that local government should do only those things that individuals cannot do for themselves, state government should do only those things that local governments cannot do, and the federal government should do only those things that the individual states cannot do. Education is something that individuals acting alone and cooperatively can do, let alone something local or state governments can do.
I should be explicit about my own animus in this regard. I don’t think the Department of Education is constitutionally legitimate, let alone appropriate. I would favor abolishing it even if, on a pragmatic level, it had improved American education. But I am in a small minority on that point, so let’s move on to the pragmatic questions.
(2) Are there serious problems in education that can be solved only at the federal level?
The first major federal spending on education was triggered by the launch of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in the fall of 1957, which created a perception that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. The legislation was specifically designed to encourage more students to go into math and science, and its motivation is indicated by its title: The National Defense Education Act of 1958. But what really ensnared the federal government in education in the 1960s had its origins elsewhere—in civil rights. The Supreme Court declared segregation of the schools unconstitutional in 1954, but—notwithstanding a few highly publicized episodes such as the integration of Central High School in Little Rock and James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi—the pace of change in the next decade was glacial.
Was it necessary for the federal government to act? There is a strong argument for “yes,” especially in the case of K-12 education. Southern resistance to desegregation proved to be both stubborn and effective in the years following Brown v. Board of Education. Segregation of the schools had been declared unconstitutional, and constitutional rights were being violated on a massive scale. But the question at hand is whether we need a Department of Education now, and we have seen a typical evolution of policy. What could have been justified as a one-time, forceful effort to end violations of constitutional rights, lasting until the constitutional wrongs had been righted, was transmuted into a permanent government establishment. Subsequently, this establishment became more and more deeply involved in American education for purposes that have nothing to do with constitutional rights, but instead with a broader goal of improving education.
The reason this came about is also intimately related to the civil rights movement. Over the same years that school segregation became a national issue, the disparities between black and white educational attainment and test scores came to public attention. When the push for President Johnson’s Great Society programs began in the mid-1960s, it was inevitable that the federal government would attempt to reduce black-white disparities, and it did so in 1965 with the passage of two landmark bills—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act. The Department of Education didn’t come into being until 1980, but large-scale involvement of the federal government in education dates from 1965.
(3) So what is the federal government’s track record in education?
The most obvious way to look at the track record is the long-term trend data of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Consider, for instance, the results for the math test for students in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades from 1978 through 2004. The good news is that the scores for fourth graders showed significant improvement in both reading and math—although those gains diminished slightly as the children got older. The bad news is that the baseline year of 1978 represents the nadir of the test score decline from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Probably we are today about where we were in math achievement in the 1960s. For reading, the story is even bleaker. The small gains among fourth graders diminish by eighth grade and vanish by the twelfth grade. And once again, the baseline tests in the 1970s represent a nadir.
From 1942 through the 1990s, the state of Iowa administered a consistent and comprehensive test to all of its public school students in grade school, middle school, and high school—making it, to my knowledge, the only state in the union to have good longitudinal data that go back that far. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills offers not a sample, but an entire state population of students. What can we learn from a single state? Not much, if we are mainly interested in the education of minorities—Iowa from 1942 through 1970 was 97 percent white, and even in the 2010 census was 91 percent white. But, paradoxically, that racial homogeneity is also an advantage, because it sidesteps all the complications associated with changing ethnic populations.
Since retention through high school has changed greatly over the last 70 years, I will consider here only the data for ninth graders. What the data show is that when the federal government decided to get involved on a large scale in K-12 education in 1965, Iowa’s education had been improving substantially since the first test was administered in 1942. There is reason to think that the same thing had been happening throughout the country. As I documented in my book, Real Education, collateral data from other sources are not as detailed, nor do they go back to the 1940s, but they tell a consistent story. American education had been improving since World War II. Then, when the federal government began to get involved, it got worse.
I will not try to make the case that federal involvement caused the downturn. The effort that went into programs associated with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 in the early years was not enough to have changed American education, and the more likely causes for the downturn are the spirit of the 1960s—do your own thing—and the rise of progressive education to dominance over American public education. But this much can certainly be said: The overall data on the performance of American K-12 students give no reason to think that federal involvement, which took the form of the Department of Education after 1979, has been an engine of improvement.
What about the education of the disadvantaged, especially minorities? After all, this was arguably the main reason that the federal government began to get involved in education—to reduce the achievement gap separating poor children and rich children, and especially the gap separating poor black children and the rest of the country.
The most famous part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was Title I, initially authorizing more than a billion dollars annually (equivalent to more than $7 billion today) to upgrade the schools attended by children from low-income families. The program has continued to grow ever since, disposing of about $19 billion in 2010 (No Child Left Behind has also been part of Title I).
Supporters of Title I confidently expected to see progress, and so formal evaluation of Title I was built into the legislation from the beginning. Over the years, the evaluations became progressively more ambitious and more methodologically sophisticated. But while the evaluations have improved, the story they tell has not changed. Despite being conducted by people who wished the program well, no evaluation of Title I from the 1970s onward has found credible evidence of a significant positive impact on student achievement. If one steps back from the formal evaluations and looks at the NAEP test score gap between high-poverty schools (the ones that qualify for Title I support) and low-poverty schools, the implications are worse. A study by the Department of Education published in 2001 revealed that the gap grew rather than diminished from 1986—the earliest year such comparisons have been made—through 1999.
That brings us to No Child Left Behind. Have you noticed that no one talks about No Child Left Behind any more? The explanation is that its one-time advocates are no longer willing to defend it. The nearly-flat NAEP trendlines since 2002 make that much-ballyhooed legislative mandate—a mandate to bring all children to proficiency in math and reading by 2014—too embarrassing to mention.
In summary: the long, intrusive, expensive role of the federal government in K-12 education does not have any credible evidence for a positive effect on American education.