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5/12/20

Reform Public Ed by Retiring Fed ED

     Happy Birthday to the United States Department of Education! Once a relatively innocuous part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, President Carter decided he could create two bureaucracies where only one existed, and the USDOE began operating on its own as a Director level agency on May 4, 1980. The Department of Health and Human Services continued without the education part, and ostensibly serves our citizens in areas other than education.  
     The USDOE, affectionately and unfortunately known by those employed there as The ED has somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,400 employees as of 2020, and a budget of about $68 billion.  Their website says that “education is primarily a state and local responsibility” and they are funded primarily from tax monies collected from states and allocated by Congress.  Somewhere around 8.5% of every state’s educational funding comes from The ED, and about 90% of The ED’s funding comes from state and local taxpayers.  This year post-secondary grants, loans and work study programs, for example, cost $129.8 billion, Pell Grants account for $29 billion, the Federal Direct Student Loan Program about $23.67 billion, Title I Grants to states $14.4 billion, Special Education grants $12.52 billion and “other” $7.92 billion round out The ED budget. I suppose the $7.92 billion in “other” means salaries and travel and building leases and furniture and printing costs and miscellaneous stuff. What that means is that states send tax money to the Federal government to support The ED and The ED sends some of it back to states if they qualify and follow all the rules. The rest is, in simple terms, loaned to students that apply for loans ostensibly to pay for school costs.  After graduation for some or a change in life goals or direction, many loan recipients come to resent the loan they requested and believe the money should be labeled “gift” instead of “loan.” Like many other Federal programs, mismanagement, poor accounting practices and the fact that the loans are not underwritten by private sector sources lead to losses that could not be justified in any other than a Federal program. The student loan program as of this moment is owed by students over $1.5 trillion dollars.
     The mission of The ED is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” They neglect to mention that the real motivation for its creation was political power and influence for the National Education Association as a reward for their support for President Carter during his campaign. Bureaucratic interpretation of policy by The ED has far too often had the effect of creating law when they simply interpret terms and policies. The ED has never had the power of creating laws; they simply assumed it and no one thought to challenge them.
     Constitutionality was evidently not a primary consideration or topic of discussion when The ED was created, and over the last 40 years it has managed to expand its scope and authority to exceed by far its financial re-contributions to state education departments.  While Federal education funding is less than 3% of the total Federal budget, The ED insists that education funding be allocated to ONLY those public school districts that follow federal guidelines. Even though the US Constitution grants no authority over education to the Federal government, the Federal government has in fact given itself that authority through ESEA and subsequent educational laws. The ED’s authority, that many consider unconstitutional in and of itself, far exceeds its limited financial contributions in whatever form, and that authority has grown exponentially, especially over the past 20 years. 
     The actual results of Federal intervention and ever increasing control over state and local education  have, like most Federal programs, been less than impressive. If you believe that standardized test scores are reflective of student learning, then The ED has been an expensive fiasco. Beginning with NCLB and the federal mandates for grade-by- grade accountability testing and ever increasing intrusive requirements from The ED required of state education departments, the only discernible result has been a test driven school culture that frustrates parents, drives teachers from the profession and teaches far too many kids to hate school. Unless you count a growing bureaucracy or the ability to use test scores to identify areas of poverty as indicative of mission fulfillment, The ED has been nothing more than just another gigantic Federal boondoggle.
     The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 adds on to the red tape by requiring states to submit their plans to the US DOE. Because these plans require Federal approval for funding (another top down effort), there is little or no incentive or autonomy allowed to design state, local and parent driven education reforms.  The ED has essentially become an enormous Federal “accountabully” whose sole purpose is to mandate those things politicians and bureaucrats believe would improve teaching and education without considering that most professional educators would never agree. Unless their true purpose is one other than the improvement of education, their insistence that a personal education for every student can only be achieved if everyone does everything exactly the same way at the same time and to the same degree flies directly in the face of common sense and a basic understanding of human action.
     Now, however, is a great time to correct one of the great examples of Federal overreach left over from the 1970’s and phase out what has been at best an ineffective institution that has few if any positive contributions or redeeming qualities to extoll its existence other than just another high dollar bureaucratic failure we really don’t have to afford any longer.
     It’s time for The ED, through Congressional action, to allow states:
  • To opt out of all federal programs under the auspices of ESEA and put those dollars to work within their own states as defined by state law;
  • To eliminate federal curriculum standards and testing mandates;
  • Remove ESEA state and local planning mandates;
  • Allow school choice within constitutional requirements;
  • Remove itself from the student loan program;
  • Allow states to assume control and operation of early childhood education programs;
  • Move civil rights enforcement from the USDOE to the Department of Justice.

       Onerous, expensive and completely unnecessary federal testing requirements for public schools created what was essentially the antithesis of effective educational policies for many years. Removing those mandates and allowing teachers the freedom to teach and parents the freedom to choose the curriculum taught would go a long way in restoring the effectiveness and the academic achievements of public schools. The vast majority of educational leaders I know would welcome competition for students between public and private schools if those testing, curricular and regulatory barriers were removed from public education..
     Phasing out The ED and returning to the states the constitutional responsibility and authority for educating their own students in the ways their citizens best determine would go a long way toward allowing true educational reform, not to mention the enormous reduction of paperwork for educational administrators at all levels. If you are looking for a culprit to blame for stagnant test scores, teachers leaving the profession and myriad other “failures of public education,” look no further than the bureaucratic Gordian knot created by The ED. The Federal government could launch a massive overhaul of the public education process by gradually removing itself from education altogether. 
     Dismantling The ED would be the single greatest contribution to improving our system of public education Secretary DeVos could hope to accomplish. While those employed by The ED may have wonderful intentions, the actual effects of their policies and controls have been at best misguided and at worst educational malpractice. It would seem the department’s minuscule positive contributions to public education have been far exceeded by The ED’s confidence that excellence can and should be mandated. 

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

More details on this topic may be found at: Policy Analysis No. 891, Cato Institute, Washington DC, May 4, 2020

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