Sunday, May 6, 2012

Education: Drawing the Line. Copyright © 2012 Tia C. Rex at Brigham Young University - Idaho

I am honored to include the following research essay by guest author, Tia C. Rex. It is extremely well written and well sourced. I could not have said it better myself.


American tradition considers education the responsibility of parents with support from communities and states in which they reside. Whether or not education is the responsibility of parents and localities or that of the federal government has been an issue in America for decades. The formation of the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and its programs intend to increase student performance and teacher quality but fall short of any measurable improvement in these areas. Since its inception, local reforms are thwarted, test scores remain stagnant, spending increases over time, teacher incentives are ineffective, and programs fail to accomplish educational improvement. Students’ educational needs have been unmet under the tutelage of the USDE. The Department has gradually expanded its powers until little educational oversight is determined by local public. The public can reclaim educational power by using correct information to reason with their representatives for ceasing education spending and eliminating federal involvement in education.

Keywords: education, reform, teacher incentive, student performance

Education has been important to Americans since its founding. A student learns through educational processes. Proper education considers multiple facets of the student’s life that improve academic achievement and motivate the child for further learning. Although learning is a student’s responsibility, parents have the ultimate right to facilitate education for their children. Families and local communities are best equipped to meet the educational needs of the whole child. The public constitutes individuals that make up families, communities and states within the nation. Allowing the federal government to make decisions about education diminishes local ability to direct education. Due to the failure of the U.S. Department of Education to meet the needs of students, the public should reclaim educational power.

The public and its representatives did not want the federal government to have too much power over education. According to the USDE Office of Communications and Outreach (2010) in the “Overview of the Department of Education”, President Andrew Johnson created the first Department of education in 1867 to “collect information and statistics about the nation’s schools. However, due to concern that the Department would exercise too much control over local schools, the new Department was demoted to an Office of Education in 1868” (p. 3). Local schools need to be controlled by local administrators who recognize the issues facing the student and can integrate needed adjustments to educate the child. The demotion of the department was taken to reduce the amount of power the federal government could wield over local education leaving it to States. In recent history that action has been thwarted.

Congress acknowledges the responsibility of parents to educate their children, and the responsibility of localities to support parental effort. However, if the public, parents and students are increasingly involved in federal education programs they would systematically be removed from authority in the educational structure. Congress passed Public Law 96-88 called the “Department of Education Organization Act” in October of 1979. The law declares that “parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their children, and States, localities, and private institutions have the primary responsibility for supporting that parental role” (sec. 101, para. 3). Contrary to this declaration the third purpose “to encourage the increased involvement of the public, parents, and students in federal education programs” (sec. 102, para. 3) would deny parents and communities their responsibility to educate their children. The more they exercise the right to educate through involvement and community support, the more the federal government has the power to administer educational programs. The conflict over who gets authority to determine education is cyclic. Parents and local schools provide education, but as they do, the federal government undermines their efforts with overbearing and inefficient programs.

Although parents and responsible citizens have a vested interest in the education of children, the USDE determines how to educate children in America. The Constitution omits any mention of federal control over education. Any omission of powers to the federal government in the Constitution is intended for the entities responsible to have control of such powers. In the case of education, that authority would be the parents with support from the public immediately surrounding them. The founders intentionally organized the document to limit the powers of a central government, knowing that an over abundance of authority in any office of government would result in the loss of freedoms to its people.

The abolishment of the USDE is encouraged in the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” If the Constitution does not say who has power to determine education that power is left to each state to determine. The federal government has disregarded the 10th Amendment through the creation and expansion of the USDE.

Author David Stephens (1984) writing for Political Science Quarterly observes that when President Carter began the development of the USDE, the National Education Association (NEA) was an influential interest group (p. 641). This teachers union had the ability to determine political outcomes and promote self interest. Stephens (1984) recalls:

About one-fifth of the 300 pro-education candidates supported by the NEA in 1976 were Republicans. The NEA’s leadership believed, however, that Democratic administrations were more sympathetic than Republican ones to public education and to the liberal social goals of the NEA. Consequently, they directed the association’s efforts into the process of nominating the Democratic presidential candidate. (p. 643)

Many of the views and ideologies backing the establishment of the USDE were those of members and leaders of the NEA who pushed for political agendas to suit their desires rather than the educational needs of students.

The NEA opposes the most effective forms of local reform because of its desire for self-interest. For example, in the documentary Waiting for “Superman”, local superintendent Michelle Rhee could not implement plans for teacher improvement because the NEA refused to allow a vote. The existing educational system was so complex and solid that her reforms for student needs could not be accomplished. She learned that education was not about student needs; it was about politics and adult self-interests (January 26, 2010).

With the formation of the USDE public schools no longer belonged to the public. Stephens (1984) suggests, “Perhaps the greatest obstacle faced by the supporters of a federal department was the American tradition that education was a state and local matter” (p. 642). Once the public began relinquishing responsibility to educate their own, through the gradual rise of the USDE, the distance of education supervision reflected the interest of the administrators not families and communities.

The public plays a major role in allowing government to control education. David Mathews (2002), in his book Why Public Schools, Whose Public Schools? What Early Communities Have to Tell Us mentions that people in America have a hunch that education isn’t fulfilling its purpose, but they do not think they can fix it (pp. 18-19). Mathews also suggests the public can have great power and begin to make enduring social changes; that when civilians have ownership in decisions it creates durable political power (p. 215). People may think that they cannot fix education in America because of their view of the USDE. Perhaps they believe it is the government’s responsibility, or that the system is too complex among others. However, if people unite to make wanted changes through informed voting and reasoning with representatives, changes they accomplish tend to be long-lasting.

To reclaim education in America the public must unite in purpose. Sean Riley (2007), for Baylor University finds that individuals’ “highest cause bring them into community with other people who share that cause, and it is this core community that provides the arena for them to live an ethical and meaningful life” (p. 94). Applying this concept to reclamation of education; as people become correctly informed about what the USDE is doing, they may begin to unite in a “highest cause” of reclaiming education from the federal government to a point where their educational aims are met in an environment that is “ethical and meaningful” to them and their children.

Under “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) many children continue to suffer academically as teachers struggle to comply with federal standards. Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill, FairTest researcher and executive director (2004) explain that NCLB aspires to bring struggling students to an acceptable level of academic skill and improve teacher instruction. The NCLB program is based on standardized testing and sanctions that are not proven but ensure failure for many public schools (p. 13). Sanctions are federal allowances. The threat of losing them undermines teacher instruction. Guisbond & Neill (2004) suggest that schools have adjusted curriculum to comply with testing standards. Under this federal mandate, teachers teach for testing results rather than for student learning (p. 14). Teachers implementing NCLB are pressured to restrict their teaching to test passing in order to help their schools qualify for federal funding. This kind of manipulation is not positive motivation for teachers. Students do not benefit from this system of limited purpose either. Students and their parents, as well as community members may have aspiration for well-rounded education, but with NCLB that aim is hindered severely in order to comply with federal funding qualifications.

Voters believe tax dollars help improve education. According to a Gallop Poll by Bushaw & McNee (2009), “lack of money was listed as the number one obstacle to prevent schools from moving in the right direction” (p.20). Many citizens recognize there are problems with education in America, and assume spending more on the programs will aid reform.

Although the public may respond in favor of tax dollars collected for education, taxes spent on education do not increase student achievement. Edward H. Crane (2003), editor of Cato Handbook for Congress 108th: Policy Recommendations for the 108th Congress acknowledges, “American taxpayers have spent virtually billions of dollars on the Department of Education since its founding in 1979, yet test scores and other measures indicate no improvement in American education” (p. 298). Taxpayers’ money goes to the USDE to be distributed according to their agendas. Education spending from tax dollars continues to remain a priority for taxpayers yet no evidence shows the money is making a difference in raising student and teacher performance.

Federal funding does not improve education in spite of new federally administered reforms. In President Obama’s State of the Union Address (2011) he referred to the “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program. “We launched a competition called ‘Race to the Top’. To all 50 states we said, ‘If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money’”. RTTT is not much different than NCLB. Both are based on the idea that federal incentives facilitate improvement. About $4 billion of stimulus is budgeted for implementing RTTT.

Money spent on education does not cause higher student performance. Fig. 1 depicts high cost for poor results since the inception of the USDE.

Average Student Performance and Cost, Fig. 1. Crane, Edward H. (2003) Average Student Performance and Cost, [chart], From Cato handbook for congress 108th:  Policy recommendations for the 108th congress (p. 298) Published by the Cato Institute, 2003. Fig. 1 Cato Handbook for Congress 108th: Policy Recommendations for the 108th Congress Federal dollars spent and student performance from 1980 to 1999.

The National Center for Education Statistics scored nine year-old children in reading from 1980 to 2000. Their research shows no positive correlation between student performance and cost. During 1999 nearly $230 billion was spent on education while average student test scores declined to just above 210 out of a range of 200 to 250. No significant change in student performance has ever occurred in the history of the USDE.

After 2000, the pattern continues. The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) finds “At age 17, the average reading score in 2008 was higher than in 2004 but not significantly different from that in 1971” (Nation’s Report Card, 2008). Seniors of graduating age have scores similar to those in 1971.

trend in naep reading average scores for 17-year-old students, Fig. 2 Trend in NAEP reading average scores for 17-year-old students, The National Assessment for Educational Progress, The Nations Report Card, Fig. 2. Retrieved (March 24, 2012) from

Fig. 2 shows a difference of 3 points higher in 2008 than 2004 and a total of one point higher than 1971. Minimal improvement shows that the continued path the government takes for education reform is ineffective. Why the federal government continues it’s failing education agenda deserves more consideration.

Money shifts in bureaucratic offices; sometimes without accomplishing its intended use. According to John T. Wenders (2005) who writes scholarly articles for “Cato Journal”, the object of the federal education endeavor is to convince voters that their taxes are improving education when in reality the public’s money is providing payment for competing institutions (p. 221). Publicity for the positive ideas expressed through federal education programs encourages the public to feel comfortable with spending taxes on education. Tax money is not used for education the way the public has been led to believe. Instead, money is redistributed to other units within the educational system for arbitrary purposes. As money shifts in far away offices with plans for improving little Joe’s education, little Joe suffers while local authorities sift through reams of policy to find what federal program he needs. Local administrators, teachers and parents have the solutions little Joe needs. They need to be able to take action in his behalf. Local solutions to local problems will provide for students’ needs with greater accuracy and timeliness.

With correct information about expenditure of education tax dollars, People have power to persuade politicians to represent their requests to stop education spending. Associate Director of the Center for Educational Freedom, Neil McCluskey (2011), explains that government gets away with spending infinite dollars on education because the public allows it. They don’t know that their money is being wasted. Education is such a good thing that they think more money will help. He states that the spending spree will only stop if people’s attitude toward federal education spending changes. McCluskey’s conclusion states that the public must show the politicians it is in their best interest to stop (February 15, 2011). Many people are willing to sacrifice to obtain education or assist others in achieving it. Although this is a noble cause, traditional thinking that tax money sent to the USDE will improve education is a misunderstanding.

The “Overview of the Department of Education” claims it “does not establish schools and colleges; develop curricula; set requirements for enrollment and graduation; determine state education standards; or develop or implement testing to measure whether states are meeting their education standards” (p. 4). Schools and colleges are developed and established by counties, states, and private institutions. Requirements for enrollment and graduation are produced by local administrative authorities. Curriculum in rural schools is relatively free from federal oversight. The Ola School in the Emmett, Idaho School District is an example of freedom from federal curriculum restraints. Students are continually engaged in hands on activities that encourage integrated learning. Teaching for testing is limited.

Standards have been created to determine the need for improvement. The “Overview” (2010) mentions that State education standards are determined by the states. The NEAP determines National testing. If states fall under the National standards the USDE encourages them to revise their plans for improvement (p. 10). States are encouraged to use the NEAP results to compare with their own testing. Even though the USDE does not determine state educational standards directly, standards are determined through comparative analysis.

The USDE does allow certain freedoms to the states and localities in supporting public schools by declaring their exclusion of certain powers from their direct control. However, these exclusions are narrowing in scope as more programs limit curricula and determine standards. In the Cato Institute podcast, “A Video Response to the 2011 State of the Union”, McCluskey explains that through RTTT curriculum is becoming federally controlled (January 26, 2011). States must meet federal qualifications to receive federal assistance. As this happens, local input over education diminishes in order to achieve national compliance.

National teacher incentives for improvement are erroneous. According to Lisa Patel Stevens and Peter Piazza (2010), authors for Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, most policies are based on the belief that “teachers bear the greatest single responsibility and capacity for raising all students’ achievement” and that “teachers know what to do to be effective but lack the correct incentives to achieve high performance.” Policies must take into consideration the “social and environmental factors that have a profound effect on student achievement” (p. 513). Teacher incentive policies are made to improve teacher performance. Students have life circumstances that affect their reaction to the teaching they receive. When “social and environmental” needs are not considered in policies for teacher incentives, those incentives generate little teacher improvement.

The line between federally dictated education and local authority to educate has been drawn. The USDE has been found overstepping that line. Meeting the educational needs of students includes considering the whole child and all factors that contribute to learning. National stipulations cannot replace the effectiveness of localities to support families and concerned citizens in providing for those needs. Small local units such as families, communities, and local private organizations, have the responsibility and vested interest in educating their children.

The public on local levels, with united purpose can reclaim the educational authority it once had before the formation of the USDE. Understanding correct information and then reasoning with representatives while voting against education spending and eliminating federal education programs will eventually result in educational power returning to the rightful authority. As responsible citizens unite to reclaim education from the federal government, the educational needs of students will be fulfilled more accurately than any distant government official or team of officials could prescribe. Familial aims for public education will be satisfied through the support of States, communities and local private institutions with personal interest in education.


Bushaw, W. J., & McNee, J. A. (2009). The 41st annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools. The Phi Delta Kappan, 91(1), 8-23.

Cato Institute. (2011, January 26). A video response to the 2011 State of the Union. Podcast retrieved from

Chilcott, L. (producer), & Guggenheim, D. (Director). (January 22, 2010). Waiting for superman [Motion picture]. USA: Participant Media.

Crane, E. H. (Ed.). (2003). Cato handbook for congress 108th: Policy recommendations for the 108th congress. Washington, DC: The Cato Institute.

Department of Education Organization Act, Pub. L. No. 96-88, § 101, 93 Stat. 668 (1981).

Fig. 1. Crane, Edward H. (2003) Average Student Performance and Cost, [chart], From Cato handbook for congress 108th: Policy recommendations for the 108th congress (p. 298) Published by the Cato Institute, 2003.

Fig. 2. Retrieved (March 24, 2012) from

Guisbond, L., & Neill, M. (2004). Failing our children: No child left behind undermines quality and equity in education. The Clearing House, 78(1), 12-16.

Mathews, D. (2002). Why public schools? Whose public schools? What early communities have to tell us. Alabama: New South Inc.

McCluskey, N. (2011, February 15). Education waste: We have only ourselves to blame. Orange County Register, Retrieved from

Riley, S. (2007). Moral identity and moral education: A Roycean proposal for school choice, The Pluralist, 2(2), 91-105.

Stephens, D. (1984). President Carter, the Congress, and NEA: Creating the Department of Education, Political Science Quarterly, 98(4), pp. 641-663.

Stevens, L. P. & Piazza, P. (2010). Dear President Obama and secretary Duncan: You are looking through the wrong window. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(6), 512-515.

U.S. Const., amend. X, § 1.

USDE. (2010). Office of Communications and Outreach. Overview of the Department of Education. Washington DC: Education Publications Center.

Wenders, J. T. (2005). The Extent and Nature of Waste and Rent Dissipation in U.S. Public Education, 25(2). Retrieved from

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