Tag: department of education

Demonstrating the Cheap-shot Defense

When I first started arguing that now is the time to press the case for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, I noted that the biggest obstacle to scaling down fed ed has long been the cheap-shot smearing of would-be downsizers. Today, I want to thank Kevin Carey, Policy Director at the think tank Education Sector, for brilliantly illustrating that very unsightly strategy.

Writing on Education Sector’s blog yesterday, Carey ripped into a post I put up that morning, a post that primarily linked to a call to abolish ED from a left-leaning educator. Carey’s rejoinder: Basically, Cato hates public education, and there’s a whole lotta crazy goin’ on:

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….

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….

[Long quote from my post]

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.

Where to begin…

Let’s start with what’s not in Carey’s big bag o’ belittling: substance. At the root of my argument for eliminating ED is the reality that federal intervention in education has produced little by way of educational improvement while costing significant amounts of money. It is also of highly questionable constitutional validity. So my argument isn’t driven by blind ideology, or just plain wackiness, but serious policy concerns, foremost of which is that ED isn’t actually good for education – which is our main concern, right? – or the country. But those concerns are nowhere mentioned in Carey’s post, and he implies that if you share my opinion, as Sharron Angle does, you probably know nothing about education.

Carey’s dismissal of George Wood, whose blog post is the heart of the entry I wrote that sent Carey over the edge, is similar. Wood makes very logical arguments for why ED is a net loss and should be absorbed into a department like Health and Human Services. I don’t agree with all of his reasoning, but it clearly shows logical thinking about why ED should go. Carey’s response: Forget your arguments, you belong in “Crazy Town” with McCluskey.

How about the stuff that is in Carey’s post?

First, there’s the usual attack that Cato-types are nutty fringers who want to destroy “public education.” As I have (obviously ineffectually) tried to explain to Carey before, I am not against public education, in which government ensures that everyone can access education. I am against public schooling, in which government runs the schools. This gets directly to the bedrock question of how best to operate education in a free society, as well as make schooling work primarily for parents and kids. And contrary to the connotation of phrases like “destroying public education as we know it,” government run schooling with a huge federal presence has hardly been the standard for most of American history.

Here’s another bit of history Carey misrepresents. He suggests that Ronald Reagan’s efforts to abolish ED in the early 1980s were part of a “fringe notion” that there shouldn’t be an ED. That’s a little hard to take, considering that ED was created by legislation signed in 1979, and didn’t start functioning until 1980. Oh, and the final House vote on the Department? It won by a scant 4 votes, 210 to 206. And heck, even American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker opposed the new Department. So yeah, very fringy.

Where Carey does make sense is in his argument that for political reasons it is not very likely that the Department of Education will be abolished.  “If one thing is sure in this life,” he writes, “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.”

Carey is far too certain about what’s in Congressional Republicans’ hearts – I bet many really do want to shrink government and reduce the deficit – but based on recent history it’s certainly reasonable to be dubious that as a group they’ll do those things. But I have never said anything different – indeed, I fully acknowledged the political obstacles:

Yesterday, Tad DeHaven wrote about an interview with Rep. John Kline (R-MN), likely chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee should the GOP take the House majority. Tad lamented that Kline seemed to declare any potential effort to kill the U.S. Department of Education (ED) already dead in the water. Unfortunately, Kline is certainly right: Any effort to kill ED in the next couple of years would not only have to get through a (presumably) GOP-held House, but (also presumably) a Dem-controlled Senate and Obama-occupied White House. There just aint no way ED will be dismantled — and more importantly, it’s profligate programs eliminated — in that environment.

That said, if many Tea Party-type candidates win today, it will be precisely the time to start pushing the immensely powerful case for ending fed ed.

I have been very clear in stating that now is the time to start pushing in earnest to end ED, not that success is almost here. But that just doesn’t fit in the “Crazy Town” narrative, I guess.

Anyway, thanks to Kevin Carey for furnishing a terrific example of this most crucial of points: The federal education war is rarely fought with reason and evidence. No, cheap shots and demonization, sadly, are the weapons of choice.

End ED — From the Left!

It’s no secret that expelling the U.S. Department of Education is something that a lot of libertarians, and conservatives who haven’t lost their way, would love to do. What’s not nearly so well known is that there are also people on the left who dislike ED. Now, they don’t dislike it because it and the programs it administers clearly exist in contravention of the Constitution, or because its massive dollar-redistribution programs have done no discernable good. They dislike it because, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind, it strong-arms schools into doing things left-wing educators often disagree with or resent, like pushing phonics over whole language, or imposing standardized testing. Many also truly believe in local control of schools, though often with power consolidated in the hands of teachers.

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?

Who needs it, indeed!

As I have touched upon repeatedly since last week’s election, now is the time to launch a serious offensive against the U.S. Department of Education. I have largely concluded that because of the wave of generally conservative and libertarian legislators heading toward Washington, as well as the powerful tea-party spirit powering the tide. But this is a battle I have always thought could be fought with a temporary alliance of the libertarian right and educators of the progressive left who truly despise top-down, one-size-fits-all, dictates from Washington. There are big sticking points, of course — for instance, many progressives love federal money “for the poor” — but this morning, I have a little greater hope that an alliance can be forged.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • Unfortunately, the party favored by tea party supporters at the moment has no interest in shuttering the Department of Education.
  • Columnist Robert Samuelson is right: the Obama administration’s high-speed rail dreams “represent shortsighted, thoughtless government at its worst.”
  • Attention GOP: the electorate wants spending cuts, and they will support the policymakers who take the lead on cuts if they are pursued in a forthright and serious-minded manner.
  • New Republican members of Congress will be looking for ways to cut the budget deficit and also to increase economic growth. One way to do both is to privatize government assets.
  • Will the House Republican leadership embrace spending cuts proposed by their own members in the conservative Republican Study Committee?

Tea Party Electees Might Get Early Chance to Prove Themselves on Education

Over the last couple days I’ve been arguing that the time might be ripe to start pushing the case in Congress to get Washington out of education. Educationally, fiscally, and constitutionally it is the right thing to do, and the negatives of being smeared as “anti-education” or “anti-child” could be countered by very powerful voter sentiments against big, wasteful government.

Well, it seems new Tea Party-type Congress members might get a chance to use education to prove their bona fides very early. In his post-pummeling presser yesterday, President Obama mentioned education as one area in which he could see bipartisan accomplishments being made, and several articles today — including on Politico and in The Washington Post — suggest that education might indeed be a Kumbaya issue.

That could be right, because presumptive House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was a lead force behind the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Obama administration has made a lot of noise (if just the opposite in terms of concrete action) about taking on teachers unions and fighting for charter schools. In other words, there seems to be some bipartisan convergence on education, with Republicans now favorable toward federal control and Dems willing to at least talk critically about mega-potent unions. That NCLB is far passed due for reauthorization only bolsters education’s chance of being used as a fence-mender.

That said, there are a lot of obstacles in the way of this happening, with the ideological fissures among congressional Republicans likely to be one of the biggest, as well as divisions among Democrats. But if the leadership in both parties see education as a place where they can all hold hands, the time to make the unapologetic, uncompromising case for getting Washington out of our schools will definitely be upon us.

Keep Fed Ed? What, Do You Hate Kids?

Yesterday, Tad DeHaven wrote about an interview with Rep. John Kline (R-MN), likely chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee should the GOP take the House majority. Tad lamented that Kline seemed to declare any potential effort to kill the U.S. Department of Education (ED) already dead in the water. Unfortunately, Kline is certainly right: Any effort to kill ED in the next couple of years would not only have to get through a (presumably) GOP-held House, but (also presumably) a Dem-controlled Senate and Obama-occupied White House. There just aint no way ED will be dismantled – and more importantly, it’s profligate programs eliminated – in that environment.

That said, if many Tea Party-type candidates win today, it will be precisely the time to start pushing the immensely powerful case for ending fed ed. I won’t post them yet again, but Andrew Coulson’s charts showing the Mount Everest of spending and the Death Valley of student achievement over the last roughly forty years should, frankly, be all the evidence anyone needs to see that the federal government should reacquaint itself with the Constitution and get out of elementary and secondary education. When it comes to higher education, the evidence plainly points to student aid helping to fuel the massive tuition hikes – and major waste – that plague higher education. And let’s not forget the ongoing failure of Head Start

The biggest obstacle to ending federal intrusion in education is that no one wants to vote against more education funding or programs no matter how akin to money-sack bonfires they are. Politicians simply don’t want to be tarred and feathered in campaign ads as being against children, or education itself. (No doubt almost everyone has seen ads attacking candidates for just such impossible cruelty over the last, seemingly endless, few months.) But if Tea Party sentiment proves strong today, tomorrow will be exactly the right time to launch a full-on, sustained attack against the federal occupation of education.

For one thing, teachers unions – arguably the most potent force in domestic politics, and the biggest “you hate children” bullies – are on their political heels, with even Democrats acknowledging that the unions don’t actually put kids first. Next, people are very concerned about wasteful spending, and as Andrew’s charts illuminate,  education furnishes that in droves. Third, the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll reveals that by large majorities Americans want state and local governments – not the feds – in charge of education. Finally, and most importantly, the evidence blares that federal spending and meddling hasn’t actually done anything to improve education. All of which makes this the perfect time to drive the argument home: We must get Washington out of education because it is bad for your pocketbook, and bad for education!

Now, some inside-the-Beltway types have counseled the GOP to ignore the Constitution and abundant evidence of federal failure because they think the feds can somehow do good. They should be ignored because logic, evidence, and the Constitution simply aren’t on their side. And for those who might say to drop the issue because you won’t win in the next year or two? They would be right about the time frame for victory, but absolutely wrong to not take up the fight.

School House Pork

The trendy thinking might be that you’re loopy if you call for ending the U.S. Department of Education, or if you think the Constitution should actually have some bearing on federal education policy. Reality, however, strongly suggests that you’d be crazy not to think that way. If you have doubts, I urge you to read Pork 101: How Education Earmarks School Taxpayers, a new report on federal education “help” from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK).   

To start things off, the report succinctly summarizes the role the Constitution gives the feds in education: “The U.S. Constitution provides no role to the federal government in education.”

That’s not entirely accurate—the 14th Amendment empowers Washington to prohibit state and local discrimination in the provision of  schooling, and the feds can control education in DC—but otherwise Washington really has zero constitutional authority to meddle in education.

Right after stating this, the report lays out the big ball of nothin’ we’ve gotten from decades of federal meddlin’ and spendin’. Some of the charts might be familiar

Finally, the paper shines a light on the root problem with federal involvement: It ultimately serves the interests of politicians and special interests, not children or the public. Indeed, by focusing on education pork—legislative earmarks that go directly to favored constituencies—the report highlights politicians literally glorifying themselves with “education” dough.

There’s $1 million, for instance, to establish the Howard Baker School of Government at the University of Tennessee. Another $6 million for the William F. Goodling Institute for Research and Family Literacy at Penn State. There’s $5 million for the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Global Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. $1 million for the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. $2 million to the City College of New York for the now-infamous Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service. And tens-of-millions for “Harkin Grants,” which are named after Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman Tom Harkin. That’s the same Tom Harkin who has been raking for-profit colleges over the coals for, basically, serving themselves with taxpayer dollars. 

Maybe they learned it by watching you, Senator Harkin.

There are many more examples of taxpayer-funded politician-aggrandizement in the report, as well as lots of other cuts of pig.  Take it all in if you can stand it, then give some thought to who’s really nutty when it comes to federal education policy. The answer should be pretty clear.

Who Said That about National Standards and Tests!?

There are lots of reasons to be very concerned about the national standards and tests barreling in silence toward education domination. Below, I offer several of those reasons – and one possible standards alternative – along with links to material expanding on the big concerns. Give ‘em a read, and as you do play a little game: See if you can guess who is quoted in each point:

  • “[T]he Department of Education – without explicit congressional authority – would use discretionary dollars to launch the test-development process….Congress should have something to say about the arrangements for so momentous a shift in American educational federalism.”
  • “The Education Department has been rushing to put the…plan into operation….Critics have been ignored.”
  • “The main contract so far is with the Council of Chief State School Officers….’The chiefs,’ as they are known in educator-land, are the Washington-based association of state superintendents, and they form one of the establishment’s most change averse crews.”
  • “It doesn’t judge certain information to be important and certain books to be best, but, rather, partakes of fashionable academic relativism.”
  • “[T]he whole idea might be privatized [see page 20], turned into a commercial (or philanthropic) testing program…with no government entanglement or federal funds.”

So who said these things? Me? Jay Greene? Jennifer Marshall and Lindsey Burke? The folks at the Pioneer Institute?

No, it wasn’t any of those national-standards opponents. It was, in fact, none other than Chester Finn: president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; leading standards-and-testing proponent; and diagnoser of paranoia among those who worry about the same sorts of things he complains about above!

So what’s going on here? Does Finn support national standards and testing rushed into place by the Department of Education, without Congressional approval, and driven largely by “The Chiefs,” or doesn’t he?  Should we, as Finn wrote in the same piece that produced the quotes above, “apply the brakes” to this “before a wreck occurs”? Are private standards and tests really a preferable option?

What I can say to help shed light on these questions is that the quotes above come not from something new, but a 1997 Weekly Standard article by Finn opposing Clinton administration efforts to get states to adopt national standards and tests.  (You can find the article here but have to subscribe to read it). These are not comments directed at the current national standards effort.

What I can’t say – and what is, of course, most important – is what has caused Finn’s tune on national standards and tests to change. Why such concern in 1997 about so many things that seem to bother him little today? Why, for instance, was it a terrible idea in 1997 to rush implementation of national standards and tests, but it’s not a deal-breaker today? Why was it troubling that CCSSO had a central role in 1997, but it’s apparently hunky-dory in 2010? Why was it a bad thing to blow off critics in 1997, but alright today?

No doubt Finn can offer many decent reasons why numerous things that troubled him in 1997 don’t do so today, but I for one can’t think of any. And before we go any further along the perilous road to nationalization, I’d sure like to know what those reasons are.