The Cato Institute is dedicated to creating “a future where government-run schools give way to a dynamic, independent system of schools competing to meet the needs of American children,” i.e. destroying public education as we know it. As such, Cato wants to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. This fringe notion was first advanced by Ronald Reagan, until A Nation at Risk was published and the Great Communicator abruptly made an about-face and became very interested in an expanded federal role in K-12 policy as way to appeal to moderate voters in the 1984 election. The idea come up again a decade later during the brief rise of Gingrichism before fading into deserved obscurity for the next 15 years.
Then Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle revived the kill Education platform, based on a general antipathy toward the federal government combined with not knowing anything about education. Even those who weren’t officially Tea-endorsed but ran on a one-item “Fire Pelosi” agenda, like Mississippi state legislator Steven Palazzo, started saying stuff like “We cannot allow the federal government to take over our education system. This should be left in the hands of the states,” because apparently the best thing for Mississippi schoolchildren is, after firing Pelosi, preserving the autonomy of Mississippi’s world-renowned public schools. Palazzo unseated a 21-year incumbent by six points.
So now reporters are calling me all the time asking me whether to take this stuff seriously. The answer is: No. Do not take it seriously. Nobody is shutting down the U.S. Department of Education. If one thing is sure in this life, one certainty that can be clung to like a rock in a storm, it’s that Congressional Republicans don’t actually want to shrink the size of the federal government, reduce the deficit, or cut federal programs in any meaningful way, particularly programs that enjoy broad public support as education programs do.
That plain fact, however, hasn’t prevented Cato’s education analysts from excitedly suggesting that the Department of Education abolition movement is on the rise. Few have joined their cause, because few people want to destroy public education as we know it. However, today Cato’s Neal McCluskey identified an ally in the reactionary anti-reform left:
Case in point is a guest blog post over at the webpage of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss. The entry is by George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio and executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. He writes:
Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complains they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.
Remember that the Department of Education was a payoff by President Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. That’s where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:
First, the current structure of the national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. The federal government provides only about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.
Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live.
But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the Beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.
Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it.
In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?
There you have it: if you were wondering who besides the Cato Institute, an organization dedicated to applying principles of extreme privatization to all walks of public life, is out there enough to abolish the Department of Education — well, now you know.
That said, beyond the “There will always be strange bedfellows in Crazy Town” aspect of this, it does raise the interesting question of whether the NEA and other hardcore anti-accountability / anti-charter / anti-testing / anti-merit pay / anti-TBD people would be willing to join forces with Congressional Republicans to visit some kind of serious harm on the federal education framework of standards, testing, and accountability.