Washington is abuzz that private-sector productivity growth has been low for the past decade or so, but do federal policymakers really know how to improve productivity in the American economy?

If one very large sector of the economy is any indication, the answer is, regrettably, a resounding “no.”

Since World War II, educators, lawmakers, and the business community routinely have complained about the performance of the American K-12 public education sector, especially schools that serve inner-city children, and more generally, schools that serve children from low-income families.

Beginning with the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, the largesse of federal taxpayers and the expertise of federal bureaucrats have been brought to bear on the problem via one of the main pillars of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. 

I wrote about the results of that effort in a new Heritage Foundation book edited by Lindsey Burke and Jonathan Butcher, “The Not-So-Great Society.”

In the wake of LBJ’s Great Society, the number of pages of federal law that governed K-12 public schools increased from 80 to 360. The number of pages of federal regulations increased from 92 to almost 1,000. Federal spending per public school student tripled in the decade of the 1960s alone, adjusted for inflation.

As federal mandates and spending increased, the number of public school administrators in local public school districts increased as well. In the six decades since 1960, the number of students increased by 40%, but the number of administrators increased by 137%.

Not counted in that administrative growth is the increase in the number of state government officials needed to administer the 17 federal K-12 education programs. Just as one example, according to its online directory, the Georgia State Department of Education has 147 staff members to administer those federal programs. And each school district has staffers devoted to managing those programs as well.

Federal programs may have been well-intentioned—such as helping students with special needs, migrant students, and students from low-income families—but if we have learned anything over the past few decades of social science research, it is that good (or “Great”) intentions do not always lead to great results.

Since the early 1970s, the performance of 17-year-olds on national reading and math exams has been flat. That is to say, improvement in student learning in those subjects has been nada, zilch, zero.

More federal control; more federal, state, and local spending on public schools; and more administrators, teachers, and support staff have all resulted in no improvement in national test results. 

On a per public school employee basis, productivity in American public schools over the past 40 years has been negative. That is, productivity has declined dramatically because we are getting the same student achievement with significantly more public school employees today, as compared with 50 years ago.

The leaders of the public K-12 education sector and the architects of the Great Society would have been tremendously happy to have had the 1.3% per year growth in productivity of the private-sector nonfarm labor sector of the past two years. Or any productivity growth at all. Or even just no dramatic decrease in productivity.

Clearly, it’s time to try something different in K-12 education. Instead of giving more authority over local schools to distant federal bureaucracies, we should empower families to decide which educational settings are best for their children.