Friday, June 11, 2010

Shut them all down

Interesting editorial from Mona Charen, writing for National Review on the Nevada Senate race where GOP candidate Sharron Angle has called for the elimination of the Department of Education. Harry Reid is pouncing on this under the mistaken impression that Americans love it when their government pours tax dollars down a sinkhole year after year with no results. As an aside. Methinks that Harry has spent way too much time inside the Beltway and is wildly misjudging the mood of the electorate this year. I am not sure that anything is off the table for many voters. There is a current of hopelessness and anger in the country that is potentially very dangerous and I think a lot of politicians are going to be rudely surprised this fall. Anyway….

In the real world, when an institution fails over and over it goes away. Or at least they used to in the pre-bailout days . Today politically connected groups feel entirely justified in demanding the government help them out with taxpayer funds when they fail. Generally speaking though, if a business is run poorly or has a product no one wants they go out of business or are taken over by a more successful competitor. In the District of Columbia we fund departments based on the name on the building and little else. Department of Agriculture? Support the farmers! Department of Commerce? Support small business! Department of Education? Support the kids. It is the rare politician who will ask the hard questions, well the not so hard question actually, like “Is the Department of Agriculture actually helping farmers?” or “Is all of that money we spend on the Department of Transportation improving transportation in the U.S.?”. Lest you think I am being unduly harsh toward those selfless public servants at the U.S. Department of Education, take a gander at some numbers.

The Department of Education was created as a straight political payoff to the teachers’ unions by Pres. Jimmy Carter (in return for their 1976 endorsement). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, DE’s original budget, in 1980, was $13.1 billion (in 2007 dollars), and it employed 450 people. By 2000, it had increased to $34.1 billion, and by 2007 it had more than doubled to $73 billion. The budget request for fiscal 2011 is $77.8 billion, and the department employs 4,800.

All of this spending has done nothing to improve American education. Between 1973 and 2004, a period in which federal spending on education more than quadrupled, mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose just 1 percent for American 17-year-olds. Between 1971 and 2004, reading scores remained completely flat.

Comparing educational achievement with per-pupil spending among states also calls into question the value of increasing expenditures. While high-spending Massachusetts had the nation’s highest proficiency scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, low-spending Idaho did very well, too. South Dakota ranks 42nd in per-pupil expenditures but eighth in math performance and ninth in reading. The District of Columbia, meanwhile, with the nation’s highest per-pupil expenditures ($15,511 in 2007), scores dead last in achievement.

Gasp! You mean to say that giving a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington D.C. more than $70,000,000,000 a year has not led to improved education? That in fact by almost every measure American public education has gotten worse academically, more bloated administratively and more dangerous to students and teachers? That there is not a direct correlation between spending and education, that spending X dollars doesn’t invariably yield Y units of education? Say it isn’t so! Just look at the org chart to the left and try to figure out what any of these departments within the DoEd have to do with education. The WH Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities? The Office of English Language Acquisition? What does that even mean? Don’t we already have the English language, do we need to acquire more of it? Here is what the WH Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities “does” for American education.

The Board issues an Annual Federal Plan for Assistance to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to the President on participation by HBCUs in federally-sponsored programs; provides advice to the Secretary of Education and makes recommendations in reports to the President on how to increase the private sector role in strengthening HBCUs, with particular emphasis on enhancing institutional infrastructure and facilitating planning, development, and the use of new technologies to ensure the goal of long-term viability and enhancement of these institutions. Members are appointed by the President and include representatives of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, other institutions of higher education, business and financial institutions, private foundations, and secondary education.

So they don’t actually “do” anything but generate a bunch of reports that get filed and never looked at again. Outstanding! The Department of Education is a sinkhole, a money pit. No one wants to cut funding because then you are accused of not thinking about “the children”. There is nothing to gain politically from cutting spending and everything to gain politically from rubber stamping increases year after year. Funding the DoEd amounts to an easy political chip for politicians. It makes the teachers unions happy. It makes parents happy. It is great for everyone except the kids who get minimal benefit from the spending but are left with the future to bill to pay. It is analogous to a kid getting a huge present for their birthday only to find that the box is empty except for a credit card bill in their name.

I don’t think Sharron Angle is thinking big enough. I think we should lock down every department in Washington D.C. and make them justify their existence before they get one red cent of tax money. Is that so crazy? Corporations must report annually to their shareholders, shouldn’t we expect at least that much from our government? The rule should be that no department gets a free pass from year to year, much less an automatic increase in funding. Every department must have a reason for every dollar they spend with a measurable goal and if they fail to meet that goal, on time and on budget, then they lose their funding. It is insane to give a bureaucracy money intended to accomplish something and then when they fail to accomplish their goal respond by giving them more money. Little wonder we are $13,000,000,000,000 in debt with little to show for it.
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