Mona Charen / June 11, 2010

Dangerous Radical

Newly minted Nevada senate candidate Sharron Angle is a kook. That’s what Sen. Harry Reid’s people are telling reporters. ABC, CNN, and other outlets seem to agree, noting that Mrs. Angle wants to shutter the federal Department of Education, get the U.S. out of the U.N., phase out Social Security, and eliminate the IRS.

We haven’t yet heard her explanations of these positions – many of which can be justified in the proper context. It’s certainly possible that she is a little eccentric (that prison massage program doesn’t pass the smell test). But this much is certain: It is not kooky to favor the elimination of the Department of Education. That this proposal is routinely labeled “extremist” is a reminder of the one-way ratchet that operates in government. Enshrine something in a federal agency and it becomes sacrosanct. Democrats cheerlead for federal programs because they are the party of government, and Republicans quietly go along because they’re afraid.

But if Republicans know how to argue for smaller government – as Gov. Chris Christie is demonstrating in New Jersey – they need not be intimidated. There are hundreds of federal programs that could be eliminated tomorrow with only the happiest consequences for the nation. And yes, the whole Department of Education could be scrapped. It vacuums up money and produces … what exactly?

As recently as 1996, the Republican Party platform declared that “The Federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the market place. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education.” Ah, bright hopes of youth.

The Department of Education was created as a straight political payoff to the teacher’s unions by President Jimmy Carter (in return for their 1976 endorsement). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, DE’s original budget, in 1980, was $13.1 billion (in 2007 dollars) and it employed 450 people. By 2000, it had increased to $34.1 billion, and by 2007, more than doubled to $73 billion. The budget request for fiscal 2011 is $77.8 billion, and the department employs 4,800.

All of this spending has done nothing to improve American education. Between 1973 and 2004, a period in which federal spending on education more than quadrupled, mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose just one percent for American 17-year-olds. Between 1971 and 2004, reading scores remained completely flat.

Comparing educational achievement with per pupil spending among states also calls into question the value of increasing expenditures. While high-spending Massachusetts had the nation’s highest proficiency scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, low-spending Idaho did very well, too. South Dakota ranks 42nd in per pupil expenditures but eighth in math performance and ninth in reading. The District of Columbia, meanwhile, with the nation’s highest per pupil expenditures ($15,511 in 2007), scores dead last in achievement.

Like the WIC program that was originally aimed at low-income pregnant and nursing women and babies but which has expanded to cover 50 percent of American infants, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was designed to aid low income and minority populations in 1965, but has since morphed into the No Child Left Behind Law that affects every student in the country.

The Education Department has done more than waste money. Busy bureaucrats have created reams of paperwork for teachers and administrators, pushed dubious curricula like bilingual education, and adopted manifold extra-educational missions. The department’s website lists hundreds of programs that bear little to no relation to schooling, including the “Spinal Cord Injuries Model Systems Program,” “Small Business Innovation Research Program,” “Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights,” “Predominantly Black Institutions Program,” “Life Skills for State and Local Prisoners,” “Institute for International Public Policy,” “Grants to States to Improve Management of Drug and Violence Prevention Programs,” “Grants to Reduce Alcohol Abuse,” and “Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program,” to name just a handful. No one checks. There is no accountability. There are no consequences for failure, except perhaps, requests for even greater funding next year.

The Department of Education is a great burbling vat of waste and it is not extremist to say so.

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