Government & Politics

Draining the Swamp to Help American Schools

Can Betsy DeVos fix the Department of Education?

James Shott · Jan. 10, 2017

Among the many hot topics since Donald Trump won the election is America’s education system. Once at the top of the nations of the world in educating its young, America has lost serious ground, and it’s time to rectify that.

Jon Guttman, Research Director of the World History Group, wrote in 2012, “As recently as 20 years ago, the United States was ranked No.1 in high school and college education.” Furthermore, “In 2009, the United States was ranked 18th out of 36 industrialized nations.” He attributes that decline to “complacency and inefficiency, reflective of lower priorities in education, and inconsistencies among the various school systems.”

This despite because of the unifying mandates of No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top and whatever other repackaged program statists impose upon our education system. Not to mention trillions of dollars poured into the system.

In 2010 at a Paris meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Barack Obama’s first secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who served from 2009 through 2015, said this:

“Before the 1960s, almost all policymaking and education funding was a state and local responsibility. In the mid-1960s, the federal role expanded to include enforcing civil rights laws to ensure that poor, minority and disabled students, as well as English language learners, had access to a high-quality education.

"As the federal role in education grew,” Duncan continued, “so did the bureaucracy.” In fact, he added, the U.S. Department of Education often “operated more like a compliance machine, instead of an engine of innovation,” and that it concerned itself with the details of formula funding, and not with educational outcomes or equity. The latter terms are leftist double-speak.

Duncan went on to say that the United States needed to challenge the status quo, and to close the achievement and opportunity gaps. Five years later, the U.S. still lagged behind many other countries.

The findings in the 2015 Program International Student Assessment (PISA), which is an international benchmark for education systems, finds the U.S. education system improved since the last assessment in 2012 in the areas of science, math and reading.

However, that alleged improvement still leaves American students ranked behind the students of 24 other countries, among the 72 participating nations. Teens in Singapore, Japan and Estonia led the more than half a million 15-year-olds in the 2015 assessment, the primary focus of which was science, with math as the primary focus in 2012.

Jimmy Carter signed the federal Department of Education into law in 1979, and since it became active the following year, American education has steadily worsened, as measured by these international assessments. President-Elect Donald Trump, like Ronald Reagan before him, has called for abolishing the Department of Education, citing the need to cut spending.

The Founders established only four cabinet level activities: foreign relations through the State Department; national defense through the Department of War (now Defense); taxation and spending through the Department of the Treasury; and enforcement of federal law through the Attorney General (now the Department of Justice).

The increase of federal agencies has arguably produced some benefits, but does their performance justify the costs incurred? They have produced tremendous growth in government control of our lives, and enormous expense, both direct and indirect. Today there are nearly four times as many cabinet level agencies as the Founders thought necessary.

The federal education effort has many sins on its list, but the primary one is the shifting of control of schools to Washington by dangling federal dollars in front of state school officials — dollars they can earn only in return for relinquishing control over their schools. Federal influences also contribute to the infestation of standardized testing, which in moderation can provide benefits, but when a typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten classes and 12th grade, that is over the edge. Eighth-graders, it is estimated, spend an average of 25.3 hours on standardized testing.

It’s in this context that Trump named Betsy DeVos to become education secretary. Her bio explains that in education she “has been a pioneer in fighting to remove barriers, to enact change and to create environments where people have the opportunity to thrive,” and that her political efforts are focused on advancing educational choices. She currently chairs the American Federation for Children.

Like all of Trump’s cabinet selections so far, the Left portrays DeVos as unqualified and criticizes her lack of experience. One particularly unflattering New York Times tome lamented that she has pushed to “give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and [tried] to strip teacher unions of their influence.”

Perhaps the contrary is true, however. Given the lackluster performance of the Department of Education when run by supposedly qualified people, someone with other strengths just might be able to turn the department into a positive influence — or at least minimize the damage — on what is broadly considered a mediocre education system.

Schools are best operated by those closest to the students, so returning control to states and localities will be a good first step.

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