The longer American students attend school, the further they fall behind the achievement of students in other economically advanced countries. In big cities, where students fall even further behind, federal education programs dominate.
The biggest federal education program, Title I for impoverished students, cost more than $100 billion over the past twenty-five years. Educators call Title 1, bilingual education, and special education categorical programs since complex regulations require them to classify students and treat them categorically. The programs entail expensive bureaucracies and special pleaders at the federal, state, and local levels that reduce the productivity of American schools.
As a result of federal categorical programs, U.S. administrative costs for schools are twice the average of other advanced countries. Their complex regulations, moreover, distract educators and reduce accountability for learning results. The regulations' inflexible rules prevent education reforms.
Study after study shows that federal programs do not help students learn. In fact, the programs have actually harmed some students. Transitional bilingual education, for example, requires teaching students in their native language, thus denying them the experience they most need, practice in English. Perverse incentives make such programs grow in size, cost, and ineffectiveness. The more students classified as limited-English-proficient, for example, the more categorical money flows to bilingual educators. Federal funding of bilingual teachers and administrators is like paying doctors to keep their patients unwell.
The same is true of special education, which wrongly categorizes many students as learning disabled and segregates them from others. Once in such special programs, students rarely escape. Wrong classifications give students excuses or bad reasons not to learn. Although special education programs can cost two or three times more per student than regular education, their students are often better off in regular classrooms.
Categorical program regulations assume that Congress and federal bureaucrats know better than educators which educational methods work best. Yet a quarter century of research reveals the failure of such federally designed programs. What is to be done?
Instead of yet one more effort to fix federal education programs, the best course would be to terminate them altogether. They clearly have cost huge amounts of money, accomplished little, and undoubtedly reduced American educational productivity. They violate the American heritage of local control of schools.
Terminating the federal programs would allow lower federal taxes, more efficiently allowing citizens to spend money they have earned on scholarships, private school tuition, or local taxes for public education. Ending federal intrusions would allow greater latitude of choice for local educators and parents.
Instead of conforming to Washington regulations, educators would be free to design programs to suit their local constituents and to evaluate the results. This change would be particularly advantageous to poor parents in big cities that are most subject to the inefficiency of federal programs and have the least choice of programs for their children.