The Federal Government’s Role in Education Needs to Change

A public choice examination of the problems facing public education

Aaron Schnoor
Jan 14 · 14 min read
Image by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

It was in a campaign advertisement released during his 2016 campaign that then-candidate Donald Trump boldly proclaimed, “We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education…Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue.”

Trump, despite the vociferous appeal to a surging populist movement that led to his election as president, was merely promising education reforms that his predecessors had also guaranteed. As a presidential candidate from Illinois, Barack Obama promised significant education reforms with a $10 billion pledge to early childhood education.Before Obama’s two terms in office, George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” funneled $12 billion to support young students in underprivileged communities.

These three presidents, although different in many ways, voiced similar promises that the government, under their guidance, could solve national education issues. This is nothing out of the ordinary. The government’s role in funding, administering, and overseeing public primary and secondary education, although constantly shifting, has steadily increased over the past half-century.

This essay seeks to offer a multi-faceted analysis of the government’s role in education, looking at the topic through five different aspects. The first section offers a history of federal aid in public schools; the second section examines the political bargaining that led to the government’s expanding role. Three necessary questions follow those main sections: first, has federal government funding of primary and secondary education been effective? Second, who benefits the most from such funding? And finally, has the failure of public school systems driven education into an increasingly private sector? These five sections offer a glimpse into the reality that public education faces, and the conclusion of this analysis will present a summary on the future of education in America.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, publicly-funded schools were practically nonexistent. In the 1953 book A History of Education in American Culture, R. Freeman Butts and Lawrence Cremin of Columbia University explain that “education during the colonial period was principally a private undertaking.” It was Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, the authors explain, who led the push to create publicly-funded schools.

In his famous farewell address of 1796, Washington told his audience, “Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

Unlike their European ancestors, Jefferson and Washington recognized that education could not be excluded from the poor. Society would have to bear the cost of the education, but, as Jefferson pointed out, the long-term benefit in funding public education would outweigh any immediate expense.

Butts and Lawrence quote our nation’s third president by writing, “Thomas Jefferson saw [the benefit] well in the struggle for public support in Virginia: ‘the tax which will be paid for this purpose…is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.’”

Although they did not live to see the entirety of its rapid progress, Jefferson and Washington had planted the beginning seed of public education in the United States. For nearly two centuries, however, the funding of public education remained solely within the purview of state legislatures.

With the exception of a small role in the funding of colleges during the end of the nineteenth century, the federal government did not venture into funding education until the mid-1900s. During President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, the president vowed to begin a “War on Poverty.”

Among the president’s signature creations was The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, an act that was committed to providing equal education to students in impoverished areas. By today’s standards, funding for ESEA was meager: approximately $2 billion (in 2018 dollars).

Since the passing of ESEA in 1965, the act has been reformed by every sitting president. According to the Hunt Institute, the ESEA was amended four times between 1965 and 1980. In 1980, President Ronald Reagan reformed the act, titling it “The Education Consolidation and Improvement Act.” In the late twentieth century, this became “Goals 2000,” then became the “Improving America’s Schools Act,” then became the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” under the Bush administration, resurfacing as the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” in 2009, then finally becoming the “Every Student Succeeds Act” in 2015.

Despite the retitling, reforms, and amendments, Lyndon Johnson’s initial act still stands as the benchmark of federal funding in primary and secondary education.

History, it is often said, tends to repeat itself.

In the case of education funding, history appears to repeat itself whenever a new president comes into power. The constant pattern of reforms has led to expansion — according to the Department of Education, what was once $2 billion for the funding of primary and secondary education now exceeds an annual expenditure of nearly $35 billion. The historical tendency to reform, enact, and repeat is one side of the tale. It is the political situations that led to such repetitive history that complete the rest of the story.

As the crux of government intervention in public education rests on the ESEA of 1965, perhaps the best explanation of political motivation lies in publications from the years preceding the act. One such document is a pamphlet titled Paying for Better Public Schools, published in December of 1959. The ninety-page document was released by the Research and Policy Committee of the Committee for Economic Development, a verbose name for a private institution founded in the 1940s. The committee, which consisted of 180 notable businessmen and economists from around the nation, explored the possible need of government funding by examining the quality of teaching and the already-existent funding within each state’s system.

In one of their conclusions, the committee states, “While we regret the necessity for any further expansion of the Federal role, we do find Federal supplementation of state and local funds necessary for the improvement of schools in the poorer states. We recommend that the Federal Government make financial grants to support public schools…”

Most interesting among the sentence is the first line, in which the committee expressed a profound dismay at acknowledging the need for government intervention. This sentiment is echoed in later portions of the document, in which the committee states that government funding may result in “Federal intervention in school affairs.”

Although the committee presents data to show its rationale in advocating for government funding, it is important to ask how the members of the group could have potentially benefited with an increase in government funding. Among the group were many prominent businessmen, including the director of Sears, the chairman of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, the president of the Detroit Edison Company, the vice president of Ford Motor Company, the chairman of General Electric, and many others. Although hypothetical, one possibility is that an increase in funding could have stimulated economically-blighted areas, which would then have had a positive impact on any businesses in those areas. After all, additional funding could mean an increase in teachers’ wages, higher quality of education, and more consumer spending.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong in the self-interest of businessmen, one has to wonder if those individuals’ healthy fear of government intervention was overshadowed by the prospect of increased profits. Even if one individual in the group would not have benefited from government funding, voting theory shows that the individual will often favor a decision that benefits the collective interests of the group.

This is shown in Dr. Robert Cooter’s The Strategic Constitution, in which the author describes the tendencies of individuals within groups. As Cooter explains, groups comprised of similar individuals will often create a definition of public interest that is self-serving. In this situation, the group may have promoted education funding in poorer states with the full knowledge that businesses in those states would benefit.

A second document that adds clarity to the years leading up to the creation of ESEA is National Politics and Federal Aid to Education, a 1963 book by Frank Munger and Richard Fenno, Jr. of Syracuse University. The book outlines the political landscape surrounding the push to add federal aid to education, describing some of the largest groups that had a collective interest in the decision. As the professors write, “Of the organizations that have regularly provided the support for the federal aid drive, the leading position has always been occupied by the educational groups.”

The authors explain that two large teacher labor unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), control extreme bargaining power in the push to create government funding.

The concentration of power in those two groups shows a strong ability to sway legislative decisions; Munger and Fenno explain that “NEA statistics and reports have usually been the starting point of most legislative debates on federal aid. The NEA’s expenditures for lobbying activities have regularly placed it among the top spenders in Washington during recent years.” From the perspective of public choice, the fact that two large organizations can influence governmental decisions is not surprising. In Mancur Olson’s 1965 book The Logic of Collective Action, the economist explains that a small number of powerful organizations can easily join forces to promote a common cause.

When smaller, less-powerful groups try to organize together, a lack of information and incentive problems will likely lead to little success; when power is concentrated among a few organizations, political bargaining is effective. It was this lobbying landscape that led to ESEA passing the U.S. Senate in 1965 with a 73–18 vote.

After analyzing the history and political bargaining behind the federal funding of public elementary and secondary education, it is important to analyze the efficacy of ESEA. What was initially a $2 billion funding endeavor — roughly 3.45% of U.S. GDP — quickly expanded as legislators pushed to increase funding.

In a 1971 survey prepared by the President’s Commission on School Finance and titled What State Legislators Think About School Finance, a group of congressmen from all fifty states were asked “to specify the percentages of funds they thought should be provided by local, State, and Federal sources.” On average, state legislators believed that the federal share of funding should increase from 7% to 20%. Not all the state politicians favored an increase in federal aid — 22% were against additional governmental assistance. But nearly the entire group of legislators believed that “State revenues are inadequate for today’s programs and levels of support of education.”

And so, with the support of the states’ political bodies, federal funding of education has continued to increase. The pivotal question becomes, then, whether the quality of education has increased at the same rate as federal expenditures in education.

In a detailed report published by the Heritage Foundation in 2008, researchers found that “since 1985, real federal spending on K-12 education has increased by 138%.” And since 1970, the report indicates, federal aid has tripled on a per-student basis. The report states that long-term measurements of reading scales and graduation rates show that the performance of students has not substantially increased in the last few decades. Graduation rates, specifically among black and Hispanic students, have stagnated; at the same time, the “achievement gap” between whites, blacks, and Hispanics in test scores has continued.

A second study on the same topic, published in 2015 by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico, attempted to refute the notion that government funding does not equal student achievement. The authors write, “Test scores are imperfect measures of learning and may be weakly linked to adult earnings and success in life.” This explanation, although valid, does not negate the fact that graduation rates for students — specifically students from low-income households living in inner-city areas — have not risen. And although poor test scores may not accurately measure learning, the fact that the scores are still falling is a slight reason to worry.

Even a 2019 report from the National Center of Education Statistics shows that the average reading scores for fourth and eighth-grade students decreased from 2017–2019. But regardless of its message, the study by Jackson, Johnson, and Persico also introduces an important point: the topic of federal aid in public education has become a political subject. As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, each president over the last two decades has promised that his political party will bring reform to education in the United States. The politicization of the issue begs the question of who benefits from federal funding in education.

In a 2016 paper on “The Politics of the Common Core Assessments,” authors Ashley Jochim and Patrick McGuinn examine the political arena surrounding government-led education programs. The paper looks specifically at Obama’s Common Core Standards Initiative of 2009, a program that proposed additional testing and teaching assessments in public schools. Although 45 states and the District of Columbia initially supported implementing the standards, controversy quickly surrounded Common Core as the initiative became embroiled in a left-versus-right debate.

As the authors explain, “The number of states planning to use the new tests dropped from 45 in 2011 to 20 in 2016.” The concern of many conservatives was that Common Core signaled a dangerous expansion of federal intrusion into education. Others saw the initiative as only an extension of the 2001 “No Child Left Behind Act,” which critics claim made little-to-no progress in improving education. Among those who supported Common Core were teachers, many of whom believed that the program could increase the standards of student-evaluation systems.

As Jochim and McGuinn explain, a 2014 Gallup poll found that 76% of teachers continued to support the Common Core program. This is not surprising; public school teachers reap the benefits of additional funding to public schools, as increased funding can translate into increased job security.

The two organizations that supported ESEA’s passing in 1965, the NEA and the AFT, continue to remain strong advocates of government aid to schools. According to a report by the Capital Research Center, “both major teachers unions are substantial funders of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.” The report points to the Center for Responsive Politics, which states that the NEA has spent over $43 million on political contributions in 2016, with 97% of that amount funneling to democrat campaigns. The AFT gave over $28 million to democrat politicians during the same year.

It may seem that lobbying efforts by unions would not be enough to sway the decisions of politicians, but public choice theory demonstrates otherwise. As economists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock pointed out in their 1962 work The Calculus of Consent, a person who is self-interested in non-political, everyday life will also be self-interested in the political spectrum.

Although politicians may claim to be immune from lobbying efforts, numerous examples display a different story. As the Center for Responsive Politics indicates, the largest political recipient of the NEA and AFT’s campaign contributions is Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts and 2020 presidential candidate. Warren, in turn, is a strong proponent of public schools and promises an additional $450 billion of federal aid in the next ten years if she is elected president.

This is just one example of a self-interested politician supporting legislation that would benefit the lobbying groups supporting her own campaign. As this evidence suggests, both unions and politicians benefit from increasing federal funding to public schools. Student improvement and overall achievement, on the other hand, does not show as strong a benefit from increased federal aid in education.

The failure of federal funding to improve schools has led parents to seek alternative forms of education for their children. According to a 2019 report from the Cato Institute, homeschooling in the United States doubled between 1999 and 2012.

A report by the American Institutes of Research shows that 74% of homeschooling parents showed dissatisfaction with the academic teaching at other schools. As that number suggests, poor education quality — and the inability of the government to effectively improve education — may have been a contributor in the parents’ decision to homeschool their children.

Another form of education that has seen growth in the United States is the rise of charter schools. Charter schools, as defined by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, are public institutions that can receive a portion of federal funding but operate upon a contract. Unlike traditional public schools, however, charter schools have greater autonomy with regard to their curriculum, personnel, and administrative decisions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of charter schools quintupled from 2001 to 2016 — an increase of 2.6 million students.

Politicians in favor of school choice — which tends to be a moderate or right of center political stance — are proponents of charter schools because of the independence the institution is granted. The NEA and the AFT, on the other hand, lambast charter schools; in the words of NEA President Lily Garcia, charter schools “jeopardizes student success, undermines public education and harms communities.”

Because of their autonomy and independence, charter schools tend to be union-free. This model of educational freedom, in the eyes of the NEA and the AFT, poses a threat to the strength of the teachers union. As Mancur Olson wrote in The Logic of Collective Action, “An existing union often has an interest in seeing that all firms in any given market are forced to pay union wage scales…the most important factor enabling large unions to survive was that membership in those unions was a great degree compulsory.”

Elizabeth Warren’s education plan, it must be noted, seeks to end federal funding to charter schools. A U.S. News article from October of 2019 reports Warren to have said, “We must resist efforts to divert public funds out of traditional public schools.” Although it remains to be seen whether charter schools will emerge victorious as the new form of education, it is clear that parents are seeking alternatives to the traditional model of public schooling.

Over two centuries have passed since George Washington spoke to Congress that “the common education of a portion of our youth from every quarter, well deserves attention.” During those years, the government’s role in funding education has expanded rapidly. Washington could not have foreseen the passing of ESEA in 1965, nor could he have predicted the Common Core initiative of 2009. And had he lived to see apparent failure of the government to increase graduation rates and maintain a continued standard of education, one has to wonder if Washington would take pride in the repetitive cycle of reforming and enacting law that is so common today.

As this analysis demonstrated, the government has not shown efficacy in creating a system of federal aid. Additionally, a brief exploration of the lobbying efforts of teacher unions shows that the only immediate beneficiaries of government aid are the unions themselves and the campaign purses of progressive politicians. The fact that private schooling and charter schools are increasing across the nation is another indicator of the failures of the government to successfully fund public schools. If public schools were truly improved by government funding, it is doubtful that such an exodus from those schools would currently exist. Or perhaps, in the end, the lesson is that federal funding is not destined to work effectively.

Educational choice — the ability to choose where you learn and how you learn — may very well be the answer to the present dilemmas facing the educational system in the United States. If, over a period of time, homeschooling, charter schools, private schools, and other methods of education are shown to be more effective, perhaps there will be a greater shift to educational autonomy.

After all, what is important is the knowledge that is attained, not the method with which it is attained.

As George Washington told Congress in 1790, “Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness.” If greater independence in the United States’ educational system is the answer to distributing more knowledge in the nation, then perhaps it is time for the government’s role in education to diminish.


All sources are available upon request.


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Aaron Schnoor

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Occasional Writer, Full-Time Student at Campbell University, and Editor at The Intelligence of Everything

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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