Abolish the Department of Education?

30 years ago, Ronald Reagan called for the termination of the Department of Education. But instead of disappearing, the Jimmy Carter creation has become a federal leviathan with no signs of abating in growth.

Reagan's Secretary of Education Terrell H. Bell thwarted Reagan's and the Christian right's plan to do away with the cabinet level bureau. Bell, an educator by profession, was instrumental in publishing a report on the national status of our schools. Bell had the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which he created in 1981, prepare a document in 1983 called "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform."

Like a small pebble tossed into a pond sends out many ripples, A Nation at Risk--through fear-inducing rhetoric and a call for more government intervention into traditional states' rights--set off a movement in education which could not be stopped. Whether Bell took this action to save his job, or whether he differed ideologically with Reagan doesn't matter now. The genie was let out of the bottle and we've paid a high price for allowing the Department of Education to have too much power.

From A Nation at Risk:

...the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people...If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war...We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. [...]

They [1982 Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools] also held that education is "extremely important" to one's future success, and that public education should be the top priority for additional Federal funds.

The commission's major imperatives were much the same as we have in the education reform movement now: the appeal for non-traditional teachers, more federal funding and heavier emphasis on science and technology studies as opposed to "general track courses."

Although the report duly outlined the problems of lackluster educational outcomes, it had a detrimental effect on allowing the states to determine their own educational policies. Thus, the DoED's job description continued to grow. What once had been an office which simply collected national statistics on school children's academic performance now has become a bureaucratic boondoggle.

As a result, we've gone from a fiscally and socially conservative president who campaigned on getting the federal government out of education to a socialist president who has allotted $102 billion of stimulus funds for education reforms and who has overseen an increase in the DoED budget from $32 billion in 2009 to $71 billion in 2011.

Back in 1996, Republicans were calling for the department's dissolution again. Bob Dole campaigned on the plank the same as Reagan had, but after his defeat, the message eventually became watered down. Take for example the two GOP platforms from 1996 and 2012.

From 1996 in the section "Improving Education" reads:

"The Federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the market place. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning."

From 2012 in the sections "the 10th Amendment" and "Consumer Choice in Education" respectively read:

We support the review and examination of all federal agencies to eliminate wasteful spending, operational inefficiencies, or abuse of power to determine whether they are performing functions that are better performed by the States. These functions, as appropriate, should be returned to the States in accordance with the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. [snip]

Congressional Republicans are pointing a new way forward with major reform legislation. We support its concept of block grants and the repeal of numerous federal regulations which interfere with State and local control of public schools.

Obviously, the piercing language of 16 years ago has been lost to a milder wording today. Yet the essence is clear: Republicans desire less government interference into individuals' and states' rights and they call for the continuance of state and local control of schools.

Among the numerous stakeholders in the education reform movement today, Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst stands out. Recently she has been revealing her position on centralized control of education policy. When asked at the 2012 Democratic National Convention about the Republican Party's education platform "pushing control back down to the local level," Rhee replied:

"We had 14,000 school boards in this country making the decisions for a long time and that is why we ended up where we ended up," Rhee said, noting that often school boards aren't composed of educators. "I don't think local folks know everything."

Also, during the convention, reporters asked Rhee whether the federal government should play a role in education. She said it must have a role, and its job is to set the standards and hold the states accountable to those standards. This amounts to a central authority calling the shots.

The DoED under its secretary Arne Duncan has already inserted its power into the states by tying funding to achievement through Race to the Top competitive grants; granting waivers to No Child Left Behind failures; and offering funding for testing materials to states who adopt Common Core Standards [all but four states have adopted them].

But the GOP has stated it supports local control, so does that mean they still want elected school boards; or does it mean they see private education companies as the local controllers? The GOP platform in 2012 doesn't specify whether the DoED should be downsized or removed.

In any event, all signs point to the DoED staying right where it is and actually increasing the scope of its power.

Dismantling an organization as entrenched as the Department of Education would be difficult at best. With so many strings attached between it and the local school systems, separating them would take a revolution.

Read more Ann Kane and M. Catharine Evans at Potter Williams Report

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