Sweeping victories in the midterm elections have put Democrats in charge of the 110th Congress. After twelve years out of power, what will Democrats seek to accomplish in federal education policy?
One common theme in their recommendations has been to increase spending on both K-12 and postsecondary education. The Democratic Party’s 2004 National Platform criticized President Bush for “breaking his word” on No Child Left Behind and “providing schools $27 billion less than he promised, literally leaving millions of children behind.” The platform also criticized the Bush administration for not providing enough federal funding for higher education and student loans, charging that “President Bush tried to charge more for student loans and eliminate Pell Grants for 84,000 students.”
Actually, federal education spending has grown dramatically over the past six years under President Bush and the Republican Congress. But more importantly, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats increasing federal funding, more federal dollars have not improved American education in recent decades.
Consider K-12 education spending. Annual U.S. Department of Education spending on elementary and secondary education has increased from $27.3 billion in 2001 to $38 billion in 2006, up by nearly 40 percent. According to the department, annual spending on the Title I program to assist disadvantaged children grew by 45 percent between 2001 and 2006. In 2007, the department will spend 59 percent more on special education programs than it did in 2001.
Unfortunately, there’s little reason to believe even these dramatic funding increases will lead to improvements in student learning in American schools. Since the early 1970s, inflation-adjusted federal spending per pupil has doubled. Over that period, student performance has not markedly improved, according to the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is designed to measure historical trends.
Under a Republican-controlled Congress, federal spending on higher education has increased