Eliminating the Federal Department of Education: Strange Bedfellows

As a follow-up to my blog piece, “Left-Libertarianism and a Broader Political Spectrum”, I’m seeing an interesting common ground of sorts emerging between some more libertarian thinkers on both the right and the left sides of that political paradigm in regards to educational policy. As an example, you have both a (right) libertarian like Ron Paul and a progressive educational group like The Forum for Education and Democracy calling for an end to the Federal Department of Education. (Of course Paul’s newly elected Senator son Rand throws a bone to his more homophobic right-wing supporters by arguing for elimination of DOE to prevent lesbian parenting from being promoted in schools.)

In his blog piece “After the Dust Clears” for The Forum for Education and Democracy, George Wood’s puts forward an argument from more of that left-libertarian point of view for a bipartisan effort to eliminate the Department of Education.

First, the current structure of a national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. Remember, the feds only provide about 8% of education funding. But 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?

What I hear him speaking to here is the theme running through most of my own thinking and writing, which is our human evolution from directive hierarchical to more egalitarian facilitative institutions and other systems.

FYI the Forum’s stated mission is …

Taking seriously the mission of our public school system — the development in all of our children the tools necessary for lifelong learning and engaged citizenship. To that end, we hope to do three things well in the coming months and years:

Advise thought leaders and policy makers about what characterizes engaging, equitable, and high-functioning schools.

Advocate for policies that help schools refocus on the whole child, prepare young people for democratic citizenship, and restore a balanced approach to whole-school assessment and accountability.

Amplify the voices of practitioners, young people, and partner organizations, so that the stories of educators and students can become the central data points that shape how policies are made – and clarify what purpose they should serve.

Much of the above statement seems pretty consistent with ideas from our Founding Fathers, though I detect the buzz words of the education alternatives movement that I am a proud member of. Can you pick them out above?

Take a minute… I’ll wait…

Those words are the phrases about educating the “whole child” and “whole-school assessment”, plus “amplify the voices of practitioners, young people”, that is, involving students in the shaping of educational policy. “Whole” as opposed to a narrowly academic and compartmentalized curriculum focus and using reductive and narrowly academic standardized (teach to the) testing to evaluate the efficacy of a given school.

I for one, with my evolving left-libertarian position (at least in regard to education), support eliminating the U.S. DOE. I think the only role the Federal government can effectively play in education is to ensure that youth civil rights are not violated in the education institutions they are required or even choose to attend. That could probably be best done by Health and Human Services.

Ideally a Federal education agency would be facilitative rather than directive, but I don’t know if that is possible at this point in our national political evolution with the current cast of characters in Washington. I believe that directive governance (rather than facilitative) is becoming less and less appropriate or effective as the underlying society and we individuals within it continue to evolve and are more empowered to chart our own individual and collective courses.

Anyway… climbing into the sack with these other odd bedfellows is the new Republican Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, John Kline from Minnesota. In Valerie Strauss’ November 4 blog piece, “Where Kline Stands on Education Policy”, for the on-line Washington Post, she cites some key positions Kline has put forward regarding the Federal role in education. Positions that I find a lot more agreement with than I have found with the educational positions of the Obama administration (which I otherwise wholeheartedly support).

Here is a sampling of some of Kline’s positions laid out in Strauss’ piece…

Kline is advocating for “reform that restores local control, empowers parents, lets teachers teach, and protects taxpayers.”

Given that many politicians on the right throw that buzz word “local control” around, which some of their more religiously parochial constituencies interpret to mean bringing God and “Christian values” back into public schools). Still empowering parents and particularly letting “teachers teach” sound pretty good to me, particularly if that can go beyond teaching to the standardized test. And I also share Kline’s opposition to No Child Left Behind.

Kline supports some provisions in Race to the Top, including an expansion of charter schools. But he is skeptical about the Common Core standards movement, which was also promoted in Race to the Top, because, he said, it is a move toward “creating a common curriculum,” which he opposes.

I too support the expansion of charter schools, particularly if they can somehow be unleashed from the shackles of standardized curriculum and the high-stakes standardized testing that enforces it. In my thinking, moving away from all these ubiquitous standards contributes to letting “teachers teach”, and even more important in my mind, letting learners learn what, where and when they think best.

One education area in which Kline has long advocated is special education. He wants Congress to fully fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, which was passed 35 years ago to ensure that students with disabilities would receive the same educational opportunities as other kids.

Here I see common ground in my own thinking and the Forum’s. Like with the effort coming to fruition in the 1960’s to ensure civil rights in the political process and education (which ironically many conservatives opposed trotting out a version of the “local control” argument), the Feds have had some of their greatest successes attempting to promote a truly egalitarian society by focusing on guaranteeing everyone’s basic human rights.

Many (including me) would argue that the right to a good education is one of those rights, but mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to learning through standardized curriculum (high-stakes evaluation of schools based on that curriculum) is not the right way to make that so. There has got to be a better way to promote more humanistic venues for our youth to learn and adults to assist with that process.

Kline gave little significance to a call by some of the more extreme newly elected members of Congress to abolish the Education Department. “In some ways, that’s sort of a talking point,” Kline said. “There will be those who campaigned on that language. I’m not sure they always know what it means.”

Damn… but realistically, he’s probably right (that is… correct).

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2 replies on “Eliminating the Federal Department of Education: Strange Bedfellows”

  1. Mark says:

    Hey, thanks for the article. I thought I was the only lefty on the planet who also felt the DOE could be abolished with the DOJ left to ensure that civil routs etc are upheld. Glad to find out that I’m not a completely alone in my thinking.

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Mark… My position on this has been particularly influenced by John Taylor Gatto’s very left-libertarian position on education. I would suggest you read his book, An Underground History of American Education, for some other provocative ideas and maybe more support for your positions.

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