Way To Go (Almost All the Way), Jay!

This morning Washington Post education columnist – and terrific Cato forum panelist – Jay Mathews called for abolition of the office of the U.S. Secretary of Education! Why? Because it has proven itself worthless, that’s why:

The president, I suspect, thought that Duncan, the former chief of the Chicago public schools, could use all he had learned there to raise achievement for students across the country.

It sounds great, but it was the same thought that led previous presidents to appoint those previous fine education secretaries to their posts. How much good did that do? Test scores for elementary and middle school students have come up a bit in the last couple of decades, but not enough to get excited about. High school scores are still flat. If national education policy had made a big jump forward, I would say we should continue to fill this job, but that hasn’t happened either. I think the No Child Left Behind law, supported by both parties, was an improvement over previous federal policies, but it was only copying what several states had already done to make schools accountable and identify schools that needed extra help.

Other than the “fine” secretaries part and the (sorta) nice words for NCLB, that sounds like something we at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom might have written. Bottom line: Washington doesn’t add any value to education, and at best just picks up on things states are already doing.

Unfortunately, after dropping the “ed sec must go” bombshell and furnishing ironclad evidence why the position is worthless, Mathews retreats from the obvious, ultimate implication of his argument: We should abolish the department the secretary leads!

The evidence screams this and, from a technical standpoint, you can’t keep a cabinet-level department and not have a secretary to head it. But in what smells a lot like a cop out, Mathews asserts that the department should stay (though in a smaller form). After all, someone has to be in charge of doling out all of the taxpayer cash that isn’t doing a damn bit of good:

Keep in mind I am NOT saying we should abolish the education department. That old Reagan campaign platform died a natural death long ago. We need the department to intelligently distribute federal money to the most promising schools in our cities and states. Cut back the number of people rumbling around that big building on Maryland Avenue—many of them are going crazy from boredom anyway—and put it under the control of a savvy civil service administrator who knows how to keep the checks and the useful data rolling out.

Too bad Mathews wasn’t willing to go all the way on this. But just for proposing that we put the position of U.S. Secretary of Education out to pasture, he deserves some hearty applause.