Editor's note: This article is one of an eight-part series that examines where U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-St. Louis, and Libertarian candidate Jonathan Dine stand on some of the issues important to Missouri voters.
Akin thinks the federal government “rewards mediocrity and divorces authority from responsibility.” He wants to stop all federal control of education and proposes eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. Instead Akin advocates giving control of school decisions to local school boards and parents of students. Akin believes states also should control funding and management of school lunch programs.
Although Akin does not support federal backing of student loans, he does support privatization of student loans. He wants to remove them from federal control and subsidies and have private banks lend directly to students.
McCaskill also believes educational decisions are best made at local and state levels, and she wants smaller classes with more qualified teachers. She supports federal government backing of teacher development and school lunch programs and wants to continue to fund the programs by using money gained from eliminating wasteful loopholes.
McCaskill also has lambasted Akin for his viewpoint on student loans. She supports federal backing of student loans and Pell grants and wants to continue to make them available to more low-income students.
Dine believes the federal government should shift its focus to educating Americans in different skilled trades to start their own businesses. He wants to create three- to six-month trade schools in cities across the country and hire local professionals to teach courses and entrepreneurial skills in those trades.
What experts said
Michael Podgursky, MU professor of economics of education, said the U.S. has 14,000 school districts and about 105,000 public schools.
“That’s not something to easily regulate from Washington, D.C.,” Podgursky said. “It’s only recently that the federal government has gotten involved with regulation of performance, with the No Child Left Behind.”
Historically, Podgursky said, most control of education has been in state hands and still is today. Many states are given waivers from No Child Left Behind. Ninety percent of educational funding comes from state and local sources.
“If they’re paying for it, they should have some local control. However, there is still a debate in many areas about the proper role of state versus federal government in education, and it’s not an irrelevant debate,” he said.
Eric Parsons, an analyst with the MU Economic and Policy Analysis Research Center, said Missouri has pretty good local control over education already.
“The only limitations school districts have are the MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) test and the forthcoming Common Core State Standards Initiative.”
Parsons said government needs a solid role in making higher education accessible and affordable because education involves a positive externality. It is a purchase that benefits even third parties who did not decide to purchase it.
“Education benefits society,” Parsons said. “Because those benefits are externalities, not enough emphasis would be placed on education if left to the market by itself. Therefore, government can have a beneficial role supporting it.”
Regarding student loans, Podgursky said that before the last few years, student loans were run by banks but with a federal guarantee.
“To see whether student loans are handled well by federal government, we have to see what happens with default rates in the future.”
On school lunches, Parsons said funding nutritional programs would be more difficult for states.
“Most states are bound by balanced budget amendments, so if we’re in lower economic times, more students qualify for such programs, whereas the states have less money to pay for the lunches, he said. “The state can find the money, but it will have to come from cuts to something else or raised taxes.”
Parsons said that to some extent the federal government has much more ability to provide school lunches.
“The federal government is more able than states to run a deficit even if tax revenues fall, as they do in hard economic times. Even abstracting from the debt issue the federal government is more capable of handling this,” he said.
Regarding teacher development programs, both Parsons and Podgursky said there is very little evidence that they actually improve student achievement, at least as measured by test scores.
“Student test scores don’t really do much better if the students’ teacher has a higher degree, so there’s a question of how much should be provided for those programs,” Parsons said.
On trade schools, Podgursky said: “We already have vocational schools, trade high schools and community colleges, but a case can be made that many students would be better served by more vocational post secondary education,” Podgursky said. “There are lots of jobs in skilled trades.”
Parsons said the idea of setting up trade schools deserves to be asked and explored.
“We assume everyone should get a college degree, but that assumption should be debated more. There is more room for variety. Having trade schools that focus on some particular technical skills that provide pathways to other jobs would be beneficial,” he said.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.