November 9, 1997
Federal Bureaucracy Stifles EducationBy U.S. Rep. John Hostettler
Education is a hot topic in Washington these days as the House considers several bills designed to improve our children's school system. The debate is healthy and much of the legislation is good. I am concerned, however, that Washington is not the proper place for this discussion in the first place. The role of the federal government in education is a relatively new development that has often resulted in creating more problems than it solved.
A good example is the story of Grove City College in Pennsylvania. This independent institution no longer participates in federal grant or loan programs. Why? For starters, the Department of Education makes colleges comply with some 7,000 regulations under the laws authorizing student grants and loans. On top of that, a law passed by Congress in 1988 -- over President Reagan's veto -- says that even if only one student receives only $1 in federal student aid, the college still must comply with all of those regulations.
If that wasn't enough, Grove City College had to battle all the way to the Supreme Court just to convince the federal government that the Education Department could only regulate the school's financial aid office, not the entire institution. Grove City won, but government intrusion continued, finally driving the school out of the programs entirely.
This is typical of the heavy-handed nature of the federal government in education matters. Despite what are often good intentions, when the huge and impersonal bureaucratic machine in Washington, D.C. steps into the affairs of individual schools the result is federal control, hyperregulation and a loss of local autonomy. If there were Laws of Bureaucracy, as there are Laws of Thermodynamics, the first law would be "Where there is federal money there are federal strings."
Currently, the federal government spends approximately $120 billion a year on more than 760 federal education programs, spanning 40 federal agencies. There has been a huge increase in federal spending and involvement in education since the Department of Education was established in the 1970s. Sadly, though not surprisingly, there has been no corresponding improvement in education. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Test scores have plummeted, many schools are physically deteriorating, metal detectors are the first to greet many of our children at school.
Where then is the money going? A great deal of it is swallowed up by the education establishment. There are nearly 5,000 employees at the Education Department. (When President Clinton vetoed an education bill in 1995, effectively shutting down the department, he deemed 4,394 of those employees "non-essential"). They engage in such vital activities as 1,767 studies on career planning, 140 studies on checklists and three studies on Cement: The Concrete Experience.
Meanwhile, teachers trying to secure federal grants waste countless hours on an application process that takes 21 weeks and requires no less than 216 tedious steps of bureaucratic red tape. Nearly 49 million hours of paperwork are required by Education Department policies -- the equivalent of 24,300 educators working 40 hours per week for an entire year.
Unfortunately, the federal government is in the education business. As long as that is the case, I will support legislation that gives states and communities greater flexibility in applying federal education dollars. For instance, I support the Helping Empower Low-Income Parents (H.E.L.P.) Scholarship Act, a bill that will allow states and localities to use existing federal funds to run a low-income public and private school choice program if specifically authorized by state law. H.E.L.P. Scholarships would allow low-income parents with children trapped in inferior schools to send them to the best school they can. The bill injects choice and competition into an education that has failed to provide children of low-income families with the great American equalizer -- a quality education. It also prohibits the Education Department from interfering in private schools, avoiding a repeat of the Grove City College experience.
However, I do not support a charter schools bill being considered in the House because it increases the federal role in education. Charter schools are a fine idea and I encourage states and communities to consider them. But they will be far more effective, not to mention Constitutional, if the federal government is not imposing its will on them.
There are some tasks the federal government is well-suited to handle: national security, interstate commerce, etc. Education is not one of those areas and the results of the last 20 years bear that out. The federal government is like a giant -- it's good at picking up large rocks, but you wouldn't ask it to fix your watch, or something even more delicate -- educate your child.
Additional articles in this issue:New column! Check out Bryan Wilhelm's "Public and Private Affairs."
Another new column! Don't miss Bryant Lewis and Joel Corbin's "Picks of the Litter"