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If sequestration spending cuts go into effect, President Obama claims that “[o]ur ability to teach our kids the skills they’ll need for the jobs of the future would be put at risk…70,000 young children would be kicked off Head Start, 10,000 teacher jobs would be put at risk, and funding for up to 7,200 special education teachers, aides, and staff could be cut.”

The Obama Administration incorrectly argues that any cuts to the education budget would come at the expense of teacher jobs or special needs funding. That is incorrect. No federal education program operated by the Department of Education directly funds teacher salaries—this is a state and local responsibility. Further, there are a multitude of ineffective and duplicative programs that could—and should—be cut, saving billions of dollars annually and restoring state and local education decision-making authority.

One program—Head Start— is not working. Taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on this program since it began in 1965; it currently costs $8 billion a year. According to a recent evaluation by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), taxpayers’ return on that “investment” is nothing to applaud. This and previous studies found that Head Start:

  • Had “little to no effect on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting outcomes” for participating children that reach the third grade;
  • Failed to have an effect on 69 out of 71 socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes for participating four-year-olds; and
  • Failed to have an effect on 66 of the 71 socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes for participating three-year-olds.

Fraud and abuse also taint the program. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted  undercover tests of the program’s registration process; in eight of the 15 tests, the GAO found staff that misrepresented information, such as family income, in order to enroll students.

While it’s time to begin phasing out Head Start, the least that policymakers should do, as Heritage Foundation expert Lindsey Burke writes, is “allow states to make their Head Start dollars portable, following children to a private preschool provider of choice.”

Head Start is just one federal education program that has failed the children it was created to help. The House Education and Workforce Committee reported on a laundry list of duplicative or ineffective education programs that could be cut, such as:

  • Native Hawaiian Education Program, $34 million annually;
  • Alaska Native Education Equity Program, $33 million annually;
  • Foreign Language Assistance Program, $26.9 million annually; and
  • High School Graduation Initiative (Dropout Prevention) Program, $50 million annually.

These are only four of the ineffective, wasteful, or redundant initiatives that could be cut; as Burke notes, there are 150 federal education programs. In fiscal year 2011, for example, the federal government spent $25 billion on over 80 grant programs that actively burdened school-level management with costly, time-consuming application and reporting requirements. In addition, onerous guidelines and regulations created by No Child Left Behind “increased state and local education agencies’ annual paperwork burden by 6.7 million hours, at a cost of $141 million” (emphasis added) in 2006 according to some estimates.

Washington has not spent federal taxpayer money judiciously on education. Real education reform would save billions of dollars, while improving children’s educational opportunities by empowering states and parents.

T. Elliot Gaiser and Jason Lloyd are currently members of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.