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Here’s How Educators Feel About Trump’s Push to Merge the Education and Labor Departments

By Alyson Klein — June 24, 2018 4 min read
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Last week, President Donald Trump proposed combining the U.S. Department of Education and the Labor Department into a single new agency—to be called the Department of Education and the Workforce—aimed at preparing children and workers for a rapidly changing economy. More on the nuts and bolts of how this would work here.

So do educators and their advocates think this is a good idea or a bad idea? Do they think it would it actually impact what goes on in districts and classrooms? Or would it just be a bureaucratic reshuffle inside the Beltway to them?

We asked for their feedback, and here’s what they told us. (Spoiler alert: Educators, by and large, don’t seem to be fans of this idea.)

John Skretta, the superintendent of the 2,400-student Norris district in Firth, Neb., said he and some of his fellow superintendents in the Cornhusker State described their reaction as #smh (“shaking my head”).

“I think it’s an absurd idea,” he said. “It would be woefully short-sighted to recommend or to try to carry out the demise of a department that is central to the idea of opportunity and equity for all.”

Nick Brake, the superintendent of the Owensboro Independent district in western Kentucky, thinks the department’s core mission would get lost if it just focused on career readiness.

The “whole idea of the Education Department is more than just train people for work,” Brake said. And reshuffling the agencies may not change much, he argued: “It’s a really expensive and detailed bureaucratic exercise. It doesn’t end up saving much. It ends up costing more.”

Brake is especially worried about parts of the broader government reorganization proposal, which aims to push a number of safety-net programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, into a broader “welfare agency.” He’s concerned that could just be an excuse to cut those programs. And that could hurt his students, about 75 percent of whom are in poverty.

“Depending on how this is structured, it could make it a lot easier for Congress to cut those programs and that to me is a very serious warning sign,” he said. “We have to be very diligent and make sure that we’re protecting the most vulnerable.”

Alyson Stout, a high school special education teacher in Illinois, has some concerns about a part of the proposal that would move the office for civil rights to away from other K-12 programs to a separate “enforcement” division.

“I don’t think the office of civil rights needs to be consolidated into anything,” she said, expressing concern that its watch dog role could be weakened. And she doesn’t think consolidating bureaucracies will help the feds build a better workforce. Instead, she said, “they should focus on providing equal access to STEM courses and teacher preparation programs. That would be lovely to see.”

Stuart Beckford, an art teacher at the Kennelly elementary and middle school in Connecticut’s Hartford district in Connecticut, doesn’t think the Education and Labor Departments have the same core missions.

“Labor and Education don’t necessarily serve the same purpose in their visions,” he said, adding that in his view, the job of the education department is to “guarantee a right” to an education. “I don’t see how the Department of Labor ensures that right. I do see how the Department of Education can facilitate those needs,” Beckford said.

Eugene Schmidt, the superintendent in Farmington, New Mexico, sees the proposal as a “first step to downgrade the importance of a federal role in education.” He’s worried about a watering-down of the agency’s mission, which in his view is to “bring consistency to educational issues on a national scale that ensures students across the nation and territories have equal access and equity to high quality education programming.”

That mission, he said, could be lost if the labor and education departments are combined. “I’m unsure how this will save money as I don’t know the details—but I continue to be fearful that by burying the DOE in another agency, the message is basically—you can all go home,” Schmidt said.

Matthew Blomstedt, Nebraska’s education commissioner, had a more complex take.

In Nebraska, different departments handle education and labor, but they still collaborate on key initiatives. Blomstedt said he didn’t necessarily think a federal department that combined education and labor policy would have a big impact on his state, as long as it let that state-level collaboration continue.

At the same time, Blomstedt said he’d be worried if the Department of Education and the Workforce merely thought of education as a means to produce labor, “instead of thinking about the broader equity of an education system.” Maintaining the federal focus on disadvantaged students as outlined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would be particularly important for him.

“I would hope, anyway, that there would be intentional connections between the sub-agencies,” Blomstedt said.

On Twitter, some users who identify themselves as educators in their bios sounded confused or dismayed.

By and large, advocates for educators in Washington are against the proposal.

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association are all opposed. So are advocates for students with disabilities, such as the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, and civil rights organizations, including the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. They worry it could weaken protections for vulnerable groups of students.

Image: Getty Images