Do we need the US Department of Education? This seems to be a question that comes up every decade or so, ever since President Jimmy Carter made ED its own free-standing cabinet agency.
Many in the Reagan Administration considered tearing down their own Ed Department, somehow believing it violated the basic tenets of conservatism and local control. In the mid-1990s, after the Contract with America and Newt Gingrich’s brilliant 1994 mid-term election campaign, Republican congressional leaders made it a rallying cry during the government shutdowns of 1995 and the elections of 1996.
Personally, I thought the issue was over following the passage of No Child Left Behind. Prior to 2001, education was a decidedly Democratic issue. Dems were pro-education (as shown by their strong support from the unions), Republicans were anti-education. President George W. Bush took that away, almost de-politicizing the issue. Despite what we want to believe now, NCLB was bi-partisan. We showed that Republicans could care about education issues, and could be equally pro-education and pro-child. And we demonstrated that Republicans and Democrats could agree (in general) on core issues such as school improvement.
Now, the question is back. By now, we are all aware of the impact the Tea Party is having on American politics. We have seen many a “sure thing” Republican fall in this year’s primary elections, with the most recent being U.S. Rep. Mike Castle in his bid to be the next U.S. Senator from Delaware. Most attribute the Tea Party with simply being anti-Obama. Against the stimulus spending. Against healthcare reform. Against big government. Against career politicians. Against business as usual. (And for some, against common sense.)
But while there is no official “platform” for Tea Party candidates (they are all Republicans, after all), talk of eliminating the U.S. Department of Education has been trickling in to the campaign rhetoric. Christine O’Donnell, Delaware’s Republican Senate nominee, is the latest to be tagged with the “torpedo ED” language. True or no, the label has been attached.
So it has got Eduflack thinking. Who, exactly, is coming up with the idea that the key to winning a U.S. House or Senate seat is calling for the dismantlement of the LBJ Building on Maryland Avenue? Are there that many folks who are riled up about the Office of Civil Rights and its commitment to an equitable education? Lines of people opposed to a national commitment to elementary and secondary education? Torches and pitchforks coming for Title I funding or the administration of student loans?
Year after year, we see that education does NOT serve as a voting issue for national elections. So why target ED? Surely there are other cabinet agencies that are better targets for campaign tales of “waste” or “federalism?” Why don’t we hear a call to eleminate the US Department of Agriculture or Commerce?
Make no mistake, the US Department of Education is going nowhere. Every single congressional district in the nation depends on ED for financial support, guidance, and general partnership. Federal education dollars head into every single city and town in the country.
But it is time for ED to stop being a whipping boy and an easy target. We are already hearing about Republicans looking to shut down the government if they take control of Congress. And the US Department of Education is usually the first to shut its doors and the last to open them after such shutdowns.
As EdSec Arne Duncan and his team continue to develop their plans for ESEA reauthorization, perhaps they need to take on a new branding task. WIth Race to the Top checks cut, i3 grants awarded, and ESEA coming down the pike, the time is now to remind Main Street USA of the role and responsibilities of the federal government in public education. Help the average parent see how the feds are partners in the education process. Help communities better understand where the feds fit in the local-state-federal continuum beyond the one-time injections of the stimulus. And generally show us that education improvement is a shared job.
Otherwise, these fights will continue, with ED getting back in the crosshairs every decade or so. Petty and pointless discussions such as eliminating the US Department of Education serve no purpose … other than making for good blog fodder and campaign bullet points.