Federal Opinion

Get Rid of the Department of Education? Why Not?

By Nancy Flanagan — November 11, 2016 4 min read
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Back in the late 1990s, I was frequently asked to serve on state and local committees/panels/task forces/ whatnot, convened on education issues. Because I had been the 1993 Michigan Teacher of the Year—and was a glutton for teacher leadership punishment—I almost always said yes.

One memorable occasion was a local chamber of commerce breakfast, where I “represented teachers” on a panel that included Mike Rogers, most recently a congressman and wanna-be conservative radio star. At the time, however, Mike Rogers was my state senator, a favorite son in every sense of the word.

Senator Rogers treated me as he would any constituent—with effusive praise for “teachers like me” who were focused on kids (read: not greedy unionism) and the offer of a photo-op. The questions were mostly softballs (this was before the accountability movement, and charter schools were still in their nascent, “laboratory of innovation” stage in Michigan)—with policy questions going to Rogers, and practice questions (“Do kids get too much homework?”) directed at me.

Then, the moderator asked Rogers if he would support, should he ever be elected to Congress, shutting down the Department of Education, a goal of Ronald Reagan’s that had never been accomplished.

“Absolutely,” said Rogers, following that up with his conviction that the federal government should have NO (emphasis his) role in education, it being strictly a state and local issue—and mainly local. There was some additional blah-blah about local school boards being the first elected office many civic leaders held, a kind of training ground, and the department being a union thing, a place where common sense about education went to die. Applause, applause—and chuckles. The man knew his audience.

The moderator was ready to move on, probably to ask me about seating charts or was ketchup really a vegetable, but then Rogers turned to me. I’m sure that teachers disagree, he smirked. I actually believe he thought I’d be intimidated or stymied.

I remarked that a federal department of education offered economies of scale—there was no need for every state, university or school district to do research or pilot-test best practice if innovative ideas could be shared across the nation.

But that kind of clearinghouse thinking was a minor, bureaucratic issue, compared to the critical and essential reason to keep the Department of Education around: equality.

I shared stories about meeting teachers in Detroit and Flint and Mississippi and Alabama—and their fear that the incremental gains made in resources and opportunities for their students through federal policy could go away without cabinet-level support. The Department of Education provided capacity-building policy, mandates and incentives to at least give the appearance of caring for our least powerful citizens: students in poverty.

The room was silent. Rogers stood up, although the program was not over, looking at his watch. “I’m not sure the good folks here in Livingston County are responsible for children other than our own,” he said.

Rogers is currently serving on Donald Trump’s transition team—thankfully, not around education interests—but most credible sources say that Trump’s election pledge to get rid of the ED are, to put it politely, just more blowing smoke. He, and his willing henchmen, may well be able to shrink it to the size where it may be drowned in a school swimming pool, however. Should your school be lucky enough to have a community pool.

In the past 15 years, unfortunately, I have often wondered if Rogers was on to something about government agencies and common sense.

The current ED, like the one before it, doesn’t act like an agency whose core purpose is equity for all students in America. While I know how hard the folks at ED have worked, through changing administration’s goals—this is not about “waste"—the federal focus on education has shifted from providing services and defending “all kids are created equal” to vindictive accountability, funding alternative governance models that harm genuinely public education, and giving an organization that sends unprepared “teachers” into our neediest schools tens of millions of dollars.

This is the institution that professional educators want to preserve?

Like any federal program—the Affordable Care Act springs to mind—there are reasons not to blow up something in place, but rather to tweak it until it serves its original purpose. However, I think a case could be made that the last two administrations have so morphed the originating aims of a federal department in charge of educating all students—whether intentionally or not—we might not find the loss of a department of education and burning down 16 years of questionable policy such a loss.

But then I think of equity.

We are responsible for children other than our own. If we are decent human beings, we are. Right?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.