As the new Congress wrestles with ways to cut our giant budget deficit, Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet. He said: "We cannot cut education." But why not? If we are going to cut programs that are proven to have failed to achieve their goals, federal spending on education should be at the top of the list. Federal spending on public schools was given two specific goals in the law called "No Child Left Behind." It required states to set targets to have all students proficient in reading and math by 2014, make annual progress toward this goal, and in particular to narrow the gap between higher-income and minority students.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan threw a cannonball into the education debate by admitting that 82% of public schools can be labeled "failing" under No Child Left Behind specifications. His solution is to stop calling them "failing," to extend the target date for student proficiency to 2020 and, of course, to appropriate more money to failed programs.
We have precious little to show for the $2 trillion in federal education spending over the past half century. It now costs three times as much (adjusted for inflation) to provide the same education as we provided in 1970. Even this bad news fails to give the big picture because productivity was rising everywhere else. Nearly all the products and services most of us buy have gotten better, more affordable, or both, over the past two generations. The fact that there is no education improvement even while spending has skyrocketed, is a disaster unmatched in any other field. In addition to the waste, this gigantic spending slowed our economic growth by taxing trillions of dollars out of the productive sector of the economy and squandering it on worthless programs.
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