Election season is underway and education is, again, a political football. The New York Times‘ Trip Gabriel reports a story this weekend about “G.O.P Candidates Take an Anti-Federal Stance.” In it, he points to candidates calling for the destruction of the U.S. Department of Education and its $68 billion annual budget, to throw out Arne Duncan and his band and to leave matters of education up to states rather than the Feds. This isn’t a new theme as Ronald Reagan proposed scrapping the Education Department in 1980 (though he ended up expanding its budget and role). We present some of the highlights below. But we are curious what our readers think of this notion. Please share your views in our comments section below.
Mr. Gabriel at the Times writes:
Representative Michele Bachmann promises to “turn out the lights” at the federal Education Department. Gov. Rick Perry calls it unconstitutional. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, would allow it to live but only as a drastically shrunken agency that mainly gathers statistics.
Even Mitt Romney, who in 2008 ran for president defending No Child Left Behind, the federal law that vastly expanded Washington’s role in public schools, now says, “We need to get the federal government out of education.”
For a generation, there has been loose bipartisan agreement in Washington that the federal government has a necessary role to play in the nation’s 13,600 school districts, primarily by using money to compel states to raise standards.
Gabriel notes that although today’s Republican contenders seem virulently opposed to the Feds being involved in education, their predecessor, George W. Bush, wanted to be the “education president” and saw his “No Child Left Behind” law as one of his major legacies. It funnels billions of federal dollars to top performing regions and aims to challenge schools across the country to meet federal standards. To the Tea Party folk, that might taste like socialism with their crumpets. It’s that same Tea Party that is now spewing venom about the Feds… and perhaps the reason why todays Republicans are so eager to call for States Rights when it comes to education. I would like to argue that point for a moment. Perhaps the Tea Party would be creating MORE government rather than less? With fewer federal standards and universal policies on basic education in the United States, we end up with 50 states and thousands of school districts creating MORE bureaucracy and competing standards and ideas. And it makes America less competitive, perhaps, against countries like China, Germany, Korea and India which tend to have national curriculum guidelines and standardized tests to determine achievement. But Mr. Gabriel points out:
So far, the candidates have not been specific about what a drastically reduced federal role would look like. Education has not become a major issue, and when candidates do address it, they tend to paint the Education Department with the same broad brush used to criticize Mr. Obama for what they see as government overreach on health care, Wall Street reform and the environment.
The change in Republican perspective is most noticeable with Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry, who earlier in their political careers supported No Child Left Behind. That 2002 law required states to show yearly progress in the number of students who were proficient in English and math, although it allowed states to measure proficiency in their own ways. Mr. Perry participated in a news conference heralding federal officials’ approval of the Texas plan for putting the law in place, providing $400 million for the state.
But today he complains of “unfunded mandates” in federal education laws that require Texas, he says, to spend more to meet the rules than it receives in federal dollars. He was one of four governors who refused to compete in Race to the Top, a grant contest that he called “a federal takeover of public schools.”
Margaret Spellings, the education secretary in the latter years of the Bush administration, said that before No Child Left Behind, when federal laws had few strings attached, many states showed little progress raising student achievement, especially for poor and minority students. “We tried that for 40 years,” she said. “The results were far from stellar.”
Here’s the background on Mitt Romney:
For his part, Mr. Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, which has long had the nation’s top public schools, at first resisted the education law, but he came to embrace it. More recently, he has praised Mr. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, for promoting “school choice” and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
But Mr. Romney is clearly feeling the hot breath of Tea Party anti-federalism. In a debate last month, when Mr. Perry accused him of being a Race to the Top fan, Mr. Romney responded, “I don’t support any particular program that he’s describing.” In fact, Mr. Romney had praised Race to the Top the day before.
Here’s the background on Michelle Bachmann:
Presumably not many of the Republican candidates want to zero out all this money. One who appears to is Mrs. Bachmann, who promises “the mother of all repeal bills” to undo education laws dating from the Great Society.
“Over a three-year period,” she explained in August at a rally in South Carolina, “I’d take the money we send to schools and write to superintendents, ‘No more requirements you have to deal with, but over three years you won’t have any money.’ ”
What do you think of these positions by the Republican candidates? Is it realistic to remove the DOE? Why or why not? Or is it a risky political idea for the GOP?
My view (WA Editor Paul Glader)? While states and localities should be allowed to make some decisions on education, we believe there is a purpose for a Federal Department of Education. Some parts of the nation’s education system face big problems. It provides funding for programs that help underprivileged students in America from kindergarten to college. We think that is an important function. A centralized authority also offers some hope for curbing abuses, steering directions and creating a semblance of national standards so we don’t have pockets of idiocy that government later has to pay for and/or be blamed for. This is particularly important with online education, education technology and for-profit colleges today.