debate

We don’t need no education (department)

DeVos gets hired, DoE gets fired?

By Sarah Sidlow

Last week, the Senate confirmed President Trump’s secretary of education pick by the smallest possible margin, calling in Vice President Mike Pence, the official tie-breaker, to tip the scales 51-50 in favor of Betsy DeVos. Pence became the first VP ever to break a tie on a cabinet nominee.

That same day, Republican Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie introduced a one-page bill to the House that simply suggested the Department of Education be terminated by Dec. 31, 2018. We can only hope it also included poop emoji.

While the DeVos pick was hotly contested, with a number of people questioning not only her political views but also her competence, the argument to axe the DoE is older than the current battle in Congress. Former President Ronald Reagan called for dismantling the Department of Education, which has been in place since 1980. Supporters like Massie believe policymakers at the state and local levels, rather than unelected bureaucrats, should be solely responsible for education policy. Many argue that the department is often politicized (fun fact: it was created by President Carter in part as a gift to the National Education Association, for the union’s early support of his candidacy). In the past, it has been used as a tool to promote a certain set of values in classrooms across the country, which can make state stakeholders a little uneasy. And then there was the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which, while perhaps well-intentioned, bore some obvious shortcomings—shout-out to the 8,600 schools that failed to meet the law’s requirements, faced sanctions, and ultimately slashed non-tested subjects like art and music.

Yet, others argue the DoE’s bird’s-eye view of education is vital. The department’s responsibilities include gathering data to assess school performance, awarding Pell grants (federal dolla make me holla), and overseeing state policies to prevent discrimination. In 2015, the Department of Education provided $27.13 billion in grants nationally—a sum that would be hard to make up by state governments and good old mom and dad.

Also, DoE supporters would like to clarify, thank you very much, that control of schools belongs mostly to state governments as it is, because they control education budgets for public school districts and universities. Even those big, bad Common Core standards, which many claim have been misrepresented as a curriculum mandated by the federal government, are standards adopted by the states and maintained by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.

Many also argue that without the Department of Education, there would be no check on inequality between low-income school districts and wealthy ones. The federal oversight exercised by the DoE protects disadvantaged children from receiving crap education—something that, if left up to the states, might not go so well.

And then there are the people who posit that with DeVos in the driver’s seat and her presumed preference for charter schools over public education, the future role of the DoE remains a mystery. Others say, when America goes to war with Australia, the moon, or Nordstrom’s, the fate of our children’s education won’t be our No. 1 concern.

 

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should the Department of Education be abolished?

 

 

Of, by, and for the people

The Department of Education is a valuable resource for our children

By Tim Walker

There can be no denying that we need the Department of Education, regardless of what conservatives—among them, my colleague in the column to the right—are saying: the Department of Education (DoED) is a necessary resource in our country today, and it deserves our unwavering support. It is valuable, our country needs it, and our children most definitely need it. Is it an entirely efficient agency? Not at all. Has it been 100 percent effective in ensuring proper education for our nation’s students? Probably not. But if not the DoED, if not the federal government, then who? Who else can be there for our families to ensure a quality, consistent education of our nation’s students across all fifty states? If the local school districts and the states themselves are not able to meet the apparently too-difficult goal of giving our public school students a level playing field and a quality education, then who else but the DoED will?

Congressman Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky’s Fourth District in the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced a bill in the House last week, on Feb. 7. Here is the text of that bill, in full:

“The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

The introduction of that bill came on the same day as the unprecedented tiebreaker vote that confirmed the much-maligned Betsy DeVos as Donald Trump’s secretary of education, making her the head of a federal agency now earmarked for potential elimination within the next two years. The nomination and subsequent confirmation of DeVos also elicited screams and cries nationwide from educators and parents who felt she was eminently unqualified to hold that position, having never sent her children to a public school, nor attended one herself.

The Department of Education, a cabinet-level federal agency created in 1979 by the U.S. government, has a stated mission to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. It has approximately 4,400 employees and an annual budget of roughly $68 billion.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, is administered by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, a branch of the DoED. In 1990, IDEA replaced the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), which had been enacted in 1975. The goal of IDEA was to place more focus on the individual student, as opposed to any conditions or disabilities the student might have. The IDEA also had many improvements on the EHA, such as promoting research, details on transition programs for students after they leave high school, and creating programs to educate children in their neighborhood schools, as opposed to having them sent to separate schools. In addition, the act requires local school districts to provide administrative procedures so that parents of disabled children can protest decisions made regarding their children’s education.

Before the EHA was enacted in 1975, U.S. public schools accepted only one out of 5 children with disabilities. Prior to that, many states had laws that specifically excluded children with certain disabilities from attending public schools, including children who were blind, deaf, or had emotional or other mental difficulties. At the time the EHA was enacted, more than 1 million children had no access to the U.S. public school system, and many of those children were kept in state institutions where they received no or inadequate educational services. As of 2014, more than 5.83 million children in the U.S. were receiving special education services through IDEA.

My youngest son is one of those children. He is 9 years old and has special needs. He has dual diagnoses that make it difficult for him to concentrate for long periods of time, and he also has social difficulties and trouble with writing, spelling, and reading. Thanks to the services provided to him by the IDEA, and by extension the Department of Education, he is able to go to school and receive the services he needs to help him succeed and further his education.

My son, and the other 5.83 million children in this country, who are currently able to attend public schools thanks to programs administered by the DoED, need the help that our government—the government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that Lincoln spoke of—provides. Without the Department of Education’s help and oversight, literally millions of children would be completely left behind, unable to attend public schools due to their unique needs. This would be a tragedy.

We must continue to protect and fund the Department of Education. The alternative would be to create an underclass of uneducated citizens who, rather than participating in our country and working to improve it, would be nothing more than a drain on our resources. It would, quite literally, be a waste of millions of lives.

 

Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

 

Your tax dollars (not) at work

In Trump’s hands, the Department of Education is one more screw-up waiting to happen

By Tim Smith

Another week, and another hotly contested Cabinet appointment from our commandant-in-chief. This time, it was Betsy DeVos’s turn in front of the Senate firing squad during hearings to be named secretary of education. Her qualifications are dubious at best. She doesn’t believe in public education, she home-schooled all of her kids, she never served as a teacher (although she did say with pride that she mentored in a public school, but didn’t specify for how long), and she has used her personal billions to establish charter schools in several states. Oh, and she also contributed some of those billions to Trump’s campaign.

In response (or possibly retaliation?) to her confirmation, Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky submitted a proposal calling for the elimination of the Department of Education (DoED) by the end of 2018. Seven other Republican lawmakers have already climbed aboard the bandwagon. Massie stated that decisions about the future of education should be made primarily by state governments.

The DoED chair is a Cabinet-level appointment. Recreated by the Department of Education Organization Act and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, DoEd began operating the following year. It divided the Department of Health, Education and Welfare into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. It has approximately 4,400 employees and an annual budget of $68 billion.

But what do they do? According to the department’s official bio, its primary functions are to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on U.S. schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” Among the federal education-related programs they do not oversee are Headstart, the Department of Agriculture’s school lunch and nutrition programs, the Department of the Interior’s Native Americans’ education programs, and the Department of Labor’s education and training programs.

A closer look reveals that President Carter established this department as payback to the National Education Association, which had contributed a butt-load of money and votes to his 1976 campaign. No doubt about it: some politicians really know how to repay favors. When Ronald Reagan took office, he wanted to abolish the department but didn’t put much effort into it. At the time, he was too busy firing air traffic controllers and hosting black tie cocktail parties. The issue was revisited under his successor, President George H.W. Bush, but again, no action was taken. This in spite of arguments from respected lawmakers such as Daniel Moynihan and Shirley Chisholm. They both felt that the department was a partisan tool that would take the focus away from programs ensuring that children had decent housing and adequate food.

State departments of education have done a credible job overall in assuring quality education, with most states (including Ohio) establishing higher standards to make our kids more job-ready and competitive. STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and math) have become the new normal in most school systems. The same is true regarding proficiency tests that determine whether or not a high school senior will graduate. Despite this greater emphasis on secondary education, student loans for college still stray dangerously close to shylock territory.

To repeat the question: what function does the DoED actually perform? By its own admission, the department does not establish schools or colleges. They do oversee the administration of Pell grants and establish oversights for civil rights and education equality. But don’t the Ohio Department of Education and the Attorney General’s Office do the same thing? The DoED can find school districts in default regarding standards, but their only legal recourse is threatening to withhold federal funding. The quality of educational institutions is maintained through a private process known as accreditation, over which the DoED has no direct jurisdictional control. In short, it is an impotent arm of government that should be amputated.

I taught for a few years, and I grew up in a family of educators. My father was a school superintendent, and was very active with numerous oversight boards and advocacy groups. We didn’t agree on everything, but we were in perfect harmony that the education system in Ohio got along just fine without federal interference. It wasn’t broke, so why fix it? School lunch programs for underprivileged kids were being fairly administered, and classroom standards fell under state purview. What was the purpose of this newly formed department, other than to reward campaign donors?

Unlike most other countries, education in the United States is highly decentralized. The federal government and Department of Education are not heavily involved in determining curricula or educational standards (with the recent exception of the No Child Left Behind Act). This responsibility has been left to state boards of education and local school districts. The same is true for funding and budgets, financed through tax levies and bond issues.

President Trump has declared his intention to drain the Washington swamp and reduce the federal deficit. Abolishing this appointee-heavy department would be a good place to start. It would also give one of his unqualified billionaire cronies one less thing to screw up.

Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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