Federal Opinion

GOP Candidates Take on the Department of Education

By Anthony Cody — August 14, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The recent debate among candidates for the Republican nomination for President has raised anew the proper role of the Federal government in our schools. Several candidates, including Herman Cain and Texas governor Rick Perry, have decried the expansion of federal influence. Michelle Bachman has likewise been critical of NCLB, and has even called for the abolition of the Department of Education.

Blogger Bob Sikes is actively following the ins and outs of the Republican primary, and he sees a split developing within conservative ranks. George W. Bush, and his brother Jeb, have been major players in the education “reform” movement, which means they have promoted NCLB and the Common Core standards. Rick Perry takes a divergent view. In an April interview in the National Review, Perry calls NCLB “a monstrous intrusion into our affairs.” As Valerie Strauss describes, Perry has taken Texas on a different path for several years, including rejecting the Common Core standards.

Sikes suggests:

Perry's presence in the race along with another NCLB opponent in Michelle Bachmann will at the very least cause a platform fight over education at next summer's GOP convention in Tampa. If education policy becomes an issue in republican primaries before then, an even better outcome could be in the offing.

Educators have tended to support an active role by the Federal government in education affairs, because of decades-old history. Back in the 1950s Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops down to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce school desegregation. The government expanded its role as defender of the disenfranchised with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, as part of the War on Poverty. The original law explicitly prohibited the adoption of national educational standards, because people wanted to ensure that the federal government not become all-powerful.

But this law was fundamentally changed in 2001, when it was recrafted as No Child Left Behind, and became a lever for the promotion of “school reform,” as defined by those in power.

No Child Left Behind has become hugely unpopular across the country. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama got big applause when they criticized the law on the campaign trail. However, as we look towards 2012, President Obama may have a big problem with his approach since taking office. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has embraced and extended the essential features of the law, which make the federal government tremendously powerful at the local level. If you go into any public school in the nation you are likely to see test scores and data charts posted on bulletin boards that once featured student art work or projects. Time set aside for teachers to work with one another is often consumed by “dates with data,” where colored spreadsheets are pored over to figure out how to target troublesome standards, or particular students.

And now, as the law shifts from draconian to absurd, and threatens to label more than 80% of the schools in the nation failures, Secretary Duncan is planning to offer waivers to states that are willing to embrace a menu of reforms not even contained in the legislation to begin with. A law that was intended to provide supplementary resources for impoverished students has become a powerful lever wielded by the Department of Education to enforce the policies and standards they desire.

From a different perspective, a retired educator named Lynn Stoddard has created a petition calling for a fundamental shift in the role of the Department of Education. Dr. Stoddard has a project called Educating for Human Greatness.

He writes:

The U.S. Department of Education has wasted billions trying to impose counterfeit reforms on public education. High stakes, useless testing has demoralized teachers, narrowed the curriculum and left parents on the sidelines. Student achievement has not improved. The DOE can help by changing to a research, resource and advisory organization. As stated in the 10th Amendment, we should leave public education as a state responsibility.
So we created a petition to The United States House of Representatives, The United States Senate and President Barack Obama, which says:

“Change the U.S. Department of Education from a dictator of school policy to that of a research, advisory and resource organization.”

So we seem to have a convergence of views, with both progressives and conservatives challenging the Department of Education’s expansive role.

The split between established Republicans like the Bush family and rising upstarts like Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain may be partly ideological and partly an attempt to capture popular sentiment that is so opposed to NCLB. In either case it creates a real problem for the Department of Education and Barack Obama. On this issue, we have a shift that could make education a big liability for this administration as we enter a campaign where every vote will count.

What do you think? Has the Department of Education become overly intrusive? Will this play a part in the 2012 presidential campaign?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.