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Updated September 2015  

What are the current controversies regarding federal education policy?

The aftermath of the "No Child Left Behind" legislation has been controversial. Critics charge that the measure has not received sufficient funding and that schools in the poorer neighborhoods are set up for failure under the achievement standards. Students and teachers alike have been stressed by the emphasis on achievement and testing. On the other hand, the national test results have improved and the number of "failing schools" has been reduced each year. In particular, the improvement has been most impressive among minority student populations. There does seem to be a general consensus that some type of accountability was necessary to measure the effectiveness of public education and that the legislation has been a worthy effort to pursue such a goal.

The change in federal education policy was developed after the 2000 Presidential campaign during which both candidates emphasized the importance of improving the nation's public education system, particularly at the primary and secondary levels. With remarkable bi-partisan unity, Congress passed the "No Child Left Behind Act" in December 2001.   The measure increased federal funding and mandates teacher and school accountability through frequent testing of all students. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the legislation is that it provides penalties for public schools which are not sufficiently meeting federal standards by providing students with the ability to transfer to higher-performing local schools, receive free tutoring, or attend after-school programs. Critics of the measure argue that the schools were not given the resources to help meet new standards and that the schools that need help the most are punished. The testing provisions have been criticized as being too rigid and not focusing on the breadth of knowledge that students should acquire. Critics also maintain that the measure has not been fully funded despite the overall increase in federal educational funding since 2003.   

The rising cost of a college education is becoming an increasingly important issue. Tuition costs are increasing significantly and enrollments are rising as well as Americans realize the increasing importance of a college education to adult financial stability.

The 2012 Rpeublican platform included a strong statement in favor of school choice. It acknowledged the growing problem of college costs and urged reforms which would more effeciently match higher education outcomes to job preparation. The 2012 Democratic platform pledges to addressing the continuing need to assist poor performing schools and touted the Obama Administration's efforts to increase financial assistance for college students.

How does government play a role in education?

Education in the United States and worldwide is primarily a government responsibility. Approximately 90% of American students receive a public financed education.  (Click to see chart)  Public education expenditures account for approximately 5% of the gross domestic product.

The United States has a decentralized public education system. The majority of funding comes from state and local sources.   Local school districts typically have a major fund raising responsibility. The result of this local control has two distinct results:

  • the level of financial support and education quality varies significantly from state to state  and from district to district; and
  • the relative absence of central control allows for less bureaucracy and more innovation in educational techniques and policy.

Although there is concern that there must be a renewed public commitment to education because future jobs will increasingly demand technical expertise, there has not yet been a major increase in funding. Public expenditures per student have increased at the elementary/secondary but not at the same rate as the increase in per capita GDP.   The majority of revenues for public universities and colleges is no longer from federal, state and local public sources.   The difference has been made up through tuition costs which have soared at both public and private universities.   Government assistance in the form of loans and grants have increased to help families meet the increased cost but most of the increase has been in the form of loans rather than grants. . As a result students are graduating with significant debt. In fact the increase in the amount of student debt is staggering when compared to other types of household debt. . In 2013 the average amount of debt of a college graduate was $28,400. In some states it has passed $30,000. Even though the net cost has been offset to some degree by grants and tax benefits , the trend toward less government and more user financing of public higher education amounts to a new tax burden facing ordinary Americans in an economy which requires a higher percentage of workers who have received higher education.

Although the percentage of the U.S. population who have become college graduates significantly varies from state to state,  (Click to see map) , over 25% are presently completing college which is a substantial increase from previous decades.

The role of the federal government in education is basically to complement the state and local education programs. About a quarter of federal funds are dedicated to college financial aid. Other substantial federal programs are targeted toward supplementing the budgets of disadvantaged school districts; special education, the school lunch program and the Head Start program. (Click to see chart)

How does does the U.S. system compare with the rest of the world?

Most other countries have more centralized control of their educational systems. As a percentage of the gross domestic product, the U.S. public spending on education is generally consistent with other developed countries.  Today there are several countries which have passed the U.S. in the percentage of the population which has completed post-secondary education programs. These programs includes the equivalent of junior college certificate programs.

How effective is the U.S. education system?

The effectiveness can be measured in comparison with test scores in other countries. The United States compares poorly with the average scores of other developed nations in mathematics, science and reading for 15 year old students. Nor has there been substantial recent progress in the improvement of these test scores. The demand of modern economies for an educated work force has made education reform and funding proposals an important public issue and which has led to bi-partisan support for improved funding.

What are the prominent ideas for improving educational achievement?

  • Smaller classroom sizes

    There is a general consensus that smaller classroom sizes, especially in early grades, is critical to educational achievement. Both political parties generally support funding proposals to hire additional teachers and constructing additional facilities for the purpose of reducing classroom sizes.

  • Home schooling is an emerging option

    Once used primarily for religious reasons, the home schooling movement is gaining prominence as more and more mainstream families try to educate children themselves. Approximately 2% of all U.S. school age children now participate in home schooling. Home schooling is effective for parents who are willing to make a serious commitment to their children's education. However home schooling requires a substantial time and financial commitment from parents. Moreover most parents do not have the expertise to provide the necessary instruction to children in many subject areas. While there have been some individual successes, it is too soon to determine whether home schooling is beneficial to student academic achievement.

  • Pay teachers based on achievement

    The compensation of most public school educators is based on their experience. Several state and local school programs have been launched to analyze teacher performance by measuring student achievement. There have been many proposals to link teacher compensation and bonuses to the results of such studies. These proposals have so far been resisted by most teachers. They believe that linking compensation to test scores fails to consider many factors besides the quality of instruction which contribute to test results. Minnesota is the only state which has enacted legislation requiring a linkage between teacher pay and performance. Florida has adopted a program through executive order.

  • Require ongoing accreditation of teachers

    Many existing teachers, particularly those in disadvantaged districts, have never received training in the subjects they are instructing. In our high schools, 39.5% of science teachers had not studied science as a major or minor. In addition 34% of mathematics teachers, 25% of English teachers, and 55% of history teacher were teaching "out of field." Many education reform proponents argue that recent advances in teacher pay actually have impeded teacher quality because they have been across the board pay increases not based on merit. Because of the pay increases, teachers have remained on the job, creating fewer teaching positions for more qualified new teachers. As a result, there has been a clamor for the regular testing of teacher competency which has generally been opposed by teacher unions.

  • Implement voucher programs

    This is today's most controversial education policy issue. There are presently some local experiments which allow parents of students to apply taxpayer money to private school tuitions. Supporters of the voucher concept argue that competition between public and private schools will improve education at both, securing real choice for parents and students. They also maintain that vouchers provide children from poor school districts with opportunities they otherwise could not afford. Opponents maintain that vouchers will drain needed funds from the public school system and have the potential of ruining public schools, especially in disadvantaged areas. The majority of private schools which would be the recipients of government aid through a voucher program are "faith-based". In June 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled that voucher programs do not violate the "establishment clause" requiring a separation between church and state. A related concept is the "education savings account" proposal which permits taxpayers to establish tax free accounts for the purpose of paying private school tuition.

  • Increased use of charter schools

    Charter schools are independent public schools, designed and operated by educators, parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs and others. These schools receive direct public funding at a rate per student which is often less than regular public schools. They are exempted from many regulatory requirements applicable to public schools and their performance and continued funding is primarily based on their compliance with the goals established by their charter. Charter schools have been legislatively authorized in all but ten states but there are differences in the legislation regarding funding, the number of schools permitted, and the types of waivers needed.

    Advocates of charter schools argue that they succeed by placing greater emphasis on academic achievement than traditional public schools and their existence challenges traditional public schools to improve. Opponents of wide-scale implementation of charter schools charge that, similar to voucher programs, the funding of charter school will drain needed educational funds from the traditional public school system and that the schools typically do not provide students with adequate facilities and equipment. Many studies which have evaluated the comparative effectiveness of charter schools and the results are encouraging but not definitive.

How do Republicans and Democrats stand on education issues?

Although the "No Child Left Behind Act" was a bi-partisan product, there remain significant differences between the two political parties on education policy. As in many government endeavors, Republicans tend to be less willing to increase federal spending and are presently accused of blocking the full funding of the "No Child Left Behind Act". Republicans tend to support stricter accountability for teachers and schools and also support "education choice" through charter schools, educational savings accounts and voucher programs. Many Democrats support making preschool universal, establishing after school learning programs, raising teacher salaries, reducing class sizes by building new schools and recruiting new teachers. Two Senate votes illustrate party differences on education issues.

Education Links

Open Directory - Education Issues

Wikipedia - Education Reform

Wikipedia - Charter school

Wikipedia - School Voucher

Wikipedia - Standardized test

Wikipedia - No Child Left Behind Act

Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

American Council on Education

Center for Education Reform

American Federation of Teachers

National Education Association

Public Education Network

Institute on Education and the Economy

Education and Child Policy - Cato Institute (conservative think tank)

Brown Center on Education Policy (Brookings)



(click to enlarge)

Final Votes on No Child Left Behind

Federal Support for Education 1965-2014

Public and Private School Enrollment 2012

Sources of Public Education Financing 2011

Per Pupil Expenditures By State for Elementary and Secondary Education

Comparison of GPD Growth and Educational Expenditures

Percentage of Federal, State and Local Public Funding of Public Universities

Tuition and Fee Increases at Public and Private Universities

Changes in Federal Loans and Grants for College

Net Cost of Public Four Year College 1994-2015

Percent Completing College By State

Percentage of Americans Completing College 1960-2013

Distribution of Federal Funds for Education

Percentage of GDP Spent on Education in Selected Countries

Percentage of Adults Completing College in Selected Countries

Comparison Between U.S. Test Scores With Other Developed Countries, 2012

Math and Reading Score Trends for 15 Year Olds