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Should Congress dismantle U.S. Department of Education and embrace full local control of schools?


Considering that virtually all the countries outpacing the United States in educational attainment have national curriculums, the disdain for any federal involvement in education in this country seems inexplicable.

Despite laments about federal control of schools, American schools enjoy more local control over their schools than most any country in the developed world. As a result, the U.S. has dramatically uneven results from state to state. Historically, the lowest performing states have been in the South.

While there's a nostalgia for schools of bygone days, America has never experienced a golden age of education. Yes, there was always an elite core of students for whom college was the expectation; they received quality educations. But there was a belief -- shared by schools, parents and students -- that the factory, farm and mill jobs awaiting most teens did not demand high-level thinking, writing or math skills. Kids could nap through math class or chemistry and still land a decent job in a factory.

As Phil Schlechty, author of "Working on the Work" and "Shaking up the Schoolhouse," once told me, "Schools were designed to send 10 percent of students to college. In 1960, half the kids didn't drop out of high school --- because they didn't come to school. They got through eighth grade and left. Schools are much better than they used to be at what they used to do, but we don't want them to do that anymore."

A changing economy has forced America to set higher goals for its schools; we have gone from trying to get every child enrolled in high school to trying to get every child to graduate high school. And we want these high school graduates prepared for postsecondary education or training.

Some states are up to the job as evidenced by the performance of their students on national and international benchmarks. Massachusetts is the standout there. Some are not.

Now, a United States representative from Kentucky wants to return to the glory days of old when there was no federal hand in education. U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie introduced a bill to abolish the federal Department of Education.

Give Massie credit for brevity: His bill contains one sentence -- "The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018."

Here is part of the statement Massie released about his effort to dismantle the education agency: (Notice a Georgian is one of the co-signers on this bill.)

“Neither Congress nor the President, through his appointees, has the constitutional authority to dictate how and what our children must learn."

Massie added, "Unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. should not be in charge of our children’s intellectual and moral development. States and local communities are best positioned to shape curricula that meet the needs of their students. Schools should be accountable. Parents have the right to choose the most appropriate educational opportunity for their children, including home school, public school, or private school."

“For years, I have advocated returning education policy to where it belongs - the state and local level,” said Rep. Walter Jones, an original co-sponsor.  “D.C. bureaucrats cannot begin to understand the needs of schools and its students on an individual basis. It is time that we get the feds out of the classroom, and terminate the Department of Education.”

“I’ve always been a proponent of empowering parents, teachers and local school boards who best know our children and their needs," said Rep. Raul Labrador, another original co-sponsor. "Eliminating the U.S. Department of Education is the most important step we in Congress can take in returning decision making to the local level.”

"Education of our students should lie primarily with parents, teachers, and state and local officials who know how to meet their individual needs best," said freshman Rep. Andy Biggs. "Since its inception, the Department of Education has grown into an unrecognizable federal beast, and its policies have helped foster Common Core across the country. It is time the one-size-fits-all approach by the federal government is ended and authority is returned to the local level."

The Department of Education began operating in 1980. On September 24, 1981, in his Address to the Nation on the Program for Economic Recovery, President Ronald Reagan said, “As a third step, we propose to dismantle two Cabinet Departments, Energy and Education. Both Secretaries are wholly in accord with this. Some of the activities in both of these departments will, of course, be continued either independently or in other areas of government. There's only one way to shrink the size and cost of big government, and that is by eliminating agencies that are not needed and are getting in the way of a solution. Now, we don't need an Energy Department to solve our basic energy problem. As long as we let the forces of the marketplace work without undue interference, the ingenuity of consumers, business, producers, and inventors will do that for us. Similarly, education is the principal responsibility of local school systems, teachers, parents, citizen boards, and State governments. By eliminating the Department of Education less than 2 years after it was created, we cannot only reduce the budget but ensure that local needs and preferences, rather than the wishes of Washington, determine the education of our children.”

Original co-sponsors include Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID).

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.