The original intent of the DOE (education, not energy–that other DOE hasn’t worked, either) was probably to get education money from states with larger tax bases like New York and California to states with small tax bases like Mississippi and Arkansas. It would have been rather difficult for many counties in Mississippi to match the resources available to a wealthy county in Connecticut. Of course, that assumes the premise that student performance is correlated with spending.
In 1979, there really wouldn’t have been a more than cosmetic difference between a poor school and a wealthy one. The basic equipment was the same–copy machines, projectors, books, and supplies. I think I remember seeing an Apple II computer with its dazzling monochrome display and lightning-fast 5.25″ floppy disk drive at my school sometime in the early ’80s. We’ve come a long way since then and now the difference between a poor and wealthy school could be a 20-year technology gap. Now, do you need an Alienware gaming PC to teach reading? No, but technology moves so fast that poor kids need the same access as wealthy kids in order to not be like my dad sitting in front of a computer when they get into the real world. Is the federal government the best instrument to accomplish that? No, it’s proven itself to be about as good at that as that old Apple II is at running Call of Duty.
There is something here that puzzle me, though. The chart shows that we spend $11,000 per pupil (I assume). Is that adjusted for inflation? Are we spending the equivalent of 5,000 in 1970 dollars today or the equivalent of 11,000 in 1970 dollars? Aside from that, one interesting effect of unwinding the DOE would be a major change in immigration policy. Illegal immigrant-friendly states know they can get federal money for those warm bodies sitting at desks. Turn off the ATM and those states will immediately say, “Secure the damn border!” College tuition increases are as regular as sunrises and health insurance premium increases, but take out a price-insensitive federal loan program and those stop, too. Probably the best argument for getting rid of the DOE: the men who founded America were educated just fine without one.
The graph is in real dollars, so it is indeed adjusted for inflation.
Hmm… So on an inflation-adjusted basis, we’re spending roughly the same per pupil today as 1970. I looked up some numbers on http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1970s.html and found some interesting things. A hundred bucks in 1970 was equal to $517 in 2005. The average price of a new car was $3,900 in 1970 and as found in another place, nearly $28,000 in late 2005. Average income was $9,350 in 1970 and $55,000 in 2005. It appears that education spending has actually lagged inflation in other categories.
Should we bring education spending up to par or even higher? Certainly not within this present paradigm. Whatever money wasn’t lost in the bureaucracy would be siphoned off by teachers unions. Of course, there are other problems. We could double the number of teachers, even non-union ones, but then we’d need more classrooms, which would require more buildings. Suddenly, noble intentions lead to spiraling expenses and you still have to address the current cultural antipathy toward education.