Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why the Department of Education Should be Abolished

Was ever a government department so unloved?

President Carter signed the necessary legislation in October 1979, and the Department of Education (ED) came into being the following year. Almost immediately, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan promised to abolish it. Once in office, however, Reagan didn't have the necessary Congressional support to disestablish it.

Further promises were made by Republicans, as late as 1996, to kill the department, but President George W. Bush's “No Child Left Behind Act” was a stunning volte face that has assured the continuation of the department, possibly forever.

Several articles set out why ED should be abolished including Devvy Kidd's “Department of Education Must be Abolished” ( “Elimination Lost: What happened to abolishing the Department of Education?” by Veronique de Rugy & Marie Gryphon (

While I agree that ED should be abolished, there is only one reason in the above articles that I agree with, and that is that there is no Constitutional authority for the Federal government to have anything to do with education.

For me, that's enough.

I do not subscribe to Miss Kidd's argument that ED will churn out little communists, nor do I agree that John Dewey's influence on American education was anywhere near as sinister as she maintains. His theories weren't perfect, few theories are, and Dewey did much to engage more children in learning, and these positive effects are still felt today.

I don't agree with Miss Kidd's statement that the United States had the best education system in the world until the creation of ED, either.

The one thing that makes ranting on any subject safe is that whatever you say about the United States is true for at least ten million people. SOME of our schools are among the best in the world; SOME are among the worst. One thing you can be sure of is that there will be great debate over which is which.

More reasons?

Okay, suppose you don't believe that just because there is no Constitutional provision for Federal involvement in education is enough to abolish ED, perhaps you would go for the creeping politicalization of education.

Once the Federal politicians get involved in education, they will meddle with every aspect of it that they possibly can. Experiences of countries that have “national curricula,” like France and UK, have politicians changing what goes on in schools so much that each round of new policies stimulates a slew of resignations and early retirements.

They mess with education because it's a “hot button” with the electorate, and it's easy to show that they've changed things. It's easier to fiddle around with education than it is to do anything about the transportation system, pensions, or global warming.

Left to continue, ED will result in the same things happening here.

Supposedly ED was established to “create programs to generate funds for education and enforcement of privacy and civil rights.” These sound like the jobs of the Treasury and Justice Departments to me.

In her stimulating book, The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby attacks the dumbing down of expectations in America. Among other things, she suggests we all go away and have a good read and think about Ralph Waldo Emerson's “The American Scholar,” in which that sage of Concord envisaged a new, uniquely American breed of thinking and scholarship.

However, like most liberals, Miss Jacoby cannot resist the temptation to meddle in everyone's life and argues in favor of a national curriculum, and this is a very bad idea.

1. A national curriculum begins as a “base line” to set out common information that all school children should receive, no matter where they are, what their background is, or what their personal educational needs are.

2. Once having established the “base line” there is the accountant's desire to know whether all that Federal funding is working, so national tests are instituted.

3. Once the national tests are instituted, you can bet that Federal funding will go to the more successful schools.

4. The less successful schools then begin teaching so that basic minimum of prescribed knowledge is transferred at the expense of everything else.

At that point, the ED, the President, and every Congressman who ever picked up a pencil claims the success and proposes that this great experiment be repeated. Before you know it, things start to look like the most prescriptive days in France when at 10.15 a.m. on a Tuesday, every child in each year group was on the same textbook page across the country.

Like that prospect? Then support the continuation of the Department of Education.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a conservative, but I've also been involved with education for a long time. A national curriculum is one of the few positive things that could come from the federal. It would be immensely helpful to both educators and the various cultural institutions that help them through public education opportunities.

    Just one example: I've worked for several museums and historical sites. Bringing kids in on field trips is one of the best ways to A) Keep the institutions financially solvent and B) Educate the public about a particular subject matter. I canoot tell you how many times I have seen parents show up at a site and say, "I didn't even know this place existed but little Billy came on a field trip and said we just had to visit."

    Without a national curriculum it requires far too many resources to try and design curriculum specific programs for more than a couple of nearby school systems. With a national curriculum you would draw in more kids from more areas and also be able to offer online 'virtual tours' to kids in far-off places.

    Beyond this there is the opportunity for collaboration between classrooms in different states or at the very least different school systems within the same state. Also, this facilitates a more mobile workforce because they know their kids will not suffer academically because of a move. Right now my wife and I cannot even move to the adjacent county from where we live because we worry about the educational impact on our kids.

    I'm not advocating the federal government create teachers' lesson plans for them or dictate every small detail of what they do in a classroom. I'm talking about creating certain specific landmarks that a teacher must visit with her kids within a particular school year. We might say that in 5th grade every kid will learn about U.S. history and these are the specific topics you will visit. Within that framework you can create electives where teachers can deviate for a few weeks to discuss their state's own history and how that fits into the larger picture. At another jumping-off point kids may have a 4-week window where they can visit local cultural institutions and work on in-class projects.

    My background is in history so obviously I have a lot of ideas there. But this would also work in other fields. Colleges could create science programs where they interact with high school kids on projects. Grad students could serve as mentors for kick-ass science projects. The upside for colleges is that they may get some enrollment from it and the upside for high schoolers is that maybe they get to spend some time on a college campus and see what they can expect in a couple of years.

    I believe a national curriculum is a conservative solution because it promotes efficency, facilitates education and aids the economy in a lot of ways.