Technology and cognitive science are marching in one direction, while public education in the United States is marching in precisely the opposite direction. Cognitive science and technology inspire and enable a distributed, fluid education structure characterized by individuality, variety, quality, and broad-based availability. But that doesn't describe K12 education in America, which is under an enormous gravitational pull toward the center-toward centralized planning and accountability, toward sameness and conformity, leading inevitably to a national curriculum mandated for all children by a bureaucratic elite.
A First Step
To get education moving toward quality, variety and efficiency in meeting the needs of individual learners, a first step is to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education. Its own document, 10 Facts About K12 Education Funding, helps to make the case: "The U.S. Constitution leaves the responsibility for public K12 education with the states." Neither creating nor regulating a national education system is a power delegated to the United States by the Constitution. Nor is it, as the DOE document inaccurately claims, solely the "responsibility" of the states. The tenth amendment actually says such powers "are reserved for the States respectively, or to the people."
Education in the United States began as an "individual responsibility" under the power of the people, but efforts to provide a "free" education to all citizens quickly created a system of schooling overseen by state governments and run by local governments. Government funding and control were established at the federal level in 1965 when Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The No Child Left Behind Act is simply a reauthorization and extension of the ESEA, ostensibly to improve achievement and ensure accountability. But accountability is only ensured by control, and that begins with funding.
Funding Has Never Been Higher
Public education, of course, is not free. It is merely a question of who pays and how the money is collected. Since schools are run by government agencies, tax collection is the predominant funding mechanism. And funding has never been higher, having increased significantly at all levels of government in recent years. From 1992 through 2002, for example, national K12 spending more than doubled (adjusted for inflation, a 24 percent increase). More important, since 1990 the federal share of K12 funding increased from 5.7 percent to 8.3 percent of the total. That may not seem like much, but when the express purpose of the funding is to "ensure accountability," it creates an incredibly powerful bully pulpit for nationalizing public education. As the DOE report states regarding "total taxpayer investment" in K12 education, "The United States is a world leader in education investment, [but] nations that spend far less achieve higher levels of student performance." Sounds like a call for greater federal control.
The DOE claims it has no "unfunded mandates" because "the conditions in federal law apply only when a state (or other grantee) voluntarily chooses to accept federal funds." But with less than 40 percent of K12 funding now at the local level, power and control continue to be sucked to the center. Current funding formulas preclude community leaders from saying, "No thanks, we don't want the money."
The Keys to Quality and Accountability
For our nation's schools to improve, education funding must change. Control of the purse strings must move from the center all the way back to the edges, into the hands of those receiving the service, instead of to the agencies providing the service. Customers can and will ensure accountability, provided they can take their business elsewhere-i.e. choose their education provider. Entrepreneurial providers need to be able to open and run schools everywhere, and if given the chance, they will. Government, as it does in other industries, can provide general regulatory guidelines, but if it continues as the sole provider of the service, schools will not improve, despite funding increases.
When customers control funding and entrepreneurial providers compete for them, universal access to high quality K12 schools will become reality. Government isn't the sole provider of automobiles, restaurants, shopping centers, or hospitals. Yet every community in America has them-and generally with amazing variety and world renowned quality. Did you ever wonder why big cities have the best hospitals and the greatest variety of good restaurants? It can be the same with K12 education.
Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration