Thursday, May 17, 2012

Eliminating the US Department of Education: Is it really that nutty an idea?

Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson believes in the elimination of the US Department of Education.  Is this an extreme position?  Let's take a look at several of the myths about what such an elimination would mean.

Myth #1--Eliminating the Department of Education would end all Federal role in public education.  Not bloody likely.  It isn't like the Feds did not have a role in public education before 1979, when President Jimmy Carter created the stand-alone department.  Most of the functions that went into the new Department of Education were split off from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare [which was renamed the Department of Health and Human Services].  In addition, various programs from the Department's of Justice, Defense, HUD, and Agriculture were included, although Headstart, Department of Agriculture school lunch programs, Department of the Interior Indian Education programs, and Department of Labor training programs were held out.

So what is envisioned is not (some would say, unfortunately) the complete elimination of Federal roles in public education, but a return to the organization in which the Office of Education under the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was reduced from cabinet status.

Myth #2--Public education needs a cabinet-level spokesperson.  There are excellent reasons for eliminating the cabinet-level post for Education, and the foremost has been that the position has generally been held by hack politicians (Lamar Alexander), ideologues (William Bennett), or supposedly successful school reformers like Richard Riley (who gave us high-stakes testing), Roderick Paige (No Child Left Behind) and Arne Duncan (Race to the Top).

There is no example of leadership at the US Secretary of Education level that can be provided to suggest that these individuals have left American public schools any better off than they were before the establishment of the Department of Education.

In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction.  For example, not only has President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, been architect of the disastrous Race to the Top program, which (as my friend John Young is fond of reminding us) has absolutely NO research basis supporting it, he has also presided over such policies as investing Federal Education dollars directly into charter schools rather than traditional schools, and reducing the due process protections for teachers at all levels accused of inappropriate behavior.

We don't need a Secretary of Education.

Myth #3--Eliminating the Department of Education would significantly reduce the funds available to public schools.

Not hardly.  Let's look at a slightly more reliable arm of the government for that data:  the US Census Bureau.  In its May 2011 report of funding public education (which uses 2009 data, which is--as usual with the Feds--the latest available), the Census Bureau concludes that the Federal government provides only 9.5% of the funding for primary and secondary public education.

Let's look at it from the other end:  the States and localities provide 90.5% of the funding for public education.

Moreover, the funding levels vary radically by state.  In Delaware, for example, the Feds provide only 6.6% of education funding--we provide the other 93.4% ourselves.  The range reported by the Census Bureau runs from a high of 15.6% in Louisiana to a low of 4.0% in New Jersey.

It is also important to remember that not all of the Federal funding comes via the Department of Education.

But it is also important to note that, especially under Ronald Reagan (imagine that!), the Department of Education was used to weaken local control of public education by increasing the power held by the States:
President Reagan also took steps to increase state power over education at the expense of local school districts. Federal funds that had flowed directly to local districts were redirected to state government. Moreover, federal monies were provided to beef up education staffing at the state level. The result was to seriously erode the power of local school districts.
This actually makes tremendous sense from a political standpoint.  Diverting Federal Education dollars from local districts to the States, and allowing the Governors to beef up their own educational bureaucraies is a tried-and-true mechanism for passing out pork into the political system rather than pushing money down into the classrooms.

[The assertion that Reagan gutted Federal spending in Education is, however, unwarranted; in 1980 the Department of Education budget was $14 billion; when Reagan left office it was $20 billion.]

Now for some realities:

Reality #1--Big, heavily funded Federal initiatives in public education have, almost uniformly, been failures.  I am not going to rehash here all the disasters that accompanied No Child Left Behind, because it has expired due to "death by waiver," only to be replaced by something (you didn't think it was possible) . . . worse.  Quoth WaPo:

But instead of offering states the right to opt out of the 2014 [NCLB] goal, the administration said they would grant waivers only to those states that did what they wanted in terms of school reform. And the Education Department’s reforms have done nothing to limit damaging high-stakes standardized testing, but instead exacerbated the problem by encouraging states to evaluate teachers in part by student test scores, a scheme assessment experts say is invalid.

In fact, RTTT has been a virtually unmitigated disaster.  Just look at Delaware's first-year report in which a significant amount of sophistry has to be expended to explain away the fact that, despite all the high hopes, Delaware test scores in the first year of the program declined precipitously.  When that happens, you generally blame one of three possible suspects:  the students, the teachers, or the test. RTTT proponents blame the test . . . you know, the test they devised.

I really, really, really (did I say really) encourage you to read about what Delaware spent its first-year allocation of about $28 million from the total $112 million grant on.  I pretty much defy you to find any spending on Delaware's worst poverty-stricken students, or any flexibility given to local schools or school districts.


Free Our Kids From Arne Duncan

President Obama now commands center stage following his formal announcement that, yes, he supports same sex marriage.

But for perspective on how we got to this point, we should shift our sights to three days before the president’s announcement. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared on MSNBC where he responded “yes, I do” when asked if he supports same sex marriage.

Duncan at best raised a few eyebrows by stating his support for same sex marriage.

If he had said that homosexuality is immoral there would have been demands for his ouster.

How have we gone from a nation where our first president, George Washington, admonished that religion and morality are “indispensable” to ‘political prosperity” to one, today, in which our president says “same-sex couples should be able to get married?”

On the marriage issue, the national transformation has been breathtaking. A new Gallup poll shows the nation evenly divided – 50 percent saying same-sex marriage should be valid and 48 percent saying it should not be. When Gallup asked the same question in 1996, 68 percent opposed legalization of same sex marriage against 27 percent in favor.

In just 16 years the gap between those opposed and in support of same sex marriage has gone from a 41 point difference to practically zero.

Our public schools are controlled locally. But the influence of the federal government is substantial. The Department of Education, per its website, “administers a budget of $68.1 billion dollars in discretionary appropriations…” serving “…nearly 16,000 school districts and approximately 49 million students…”

It’s not trivial that Duncan, the man who oversees this massive enterprise molding the minds of our nation’s youth, publicly rejects the traditional definition of marriage in favor of one saying it just takes two (so far) warm bodies of any gender combination.

The president brandishes one of his favorite words in explaining his support for same sex marriage. “Fairness.” Actually, this is about unfairness.

We have bought into a grand illusion that we can make our public spaces value neutral. But this is impossible.   The struggle in our public spaces is about competing world views. Not neutrality.

As one court ruling after another has purged religious expression from our public spaces, we have unfairly suppressed traditional values in favor of promoting alternative secular views.

As we have sanitized our public schools from prayer, from displays of the Ten Commandments, from any teaching that can be associated with biblical sources, we’ve put government monopoly power behind moral relativism.

California, for instance, has a new law mandating teaching gay history in public schools. A similar mandate to teach Christian history would be challenged constitutionally.

2011-2012 Resolutions of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, include support of same sex marriage and sex education programs that appreciate “diversity of …sexual orientation and gender identification.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the nation’s second largest teacher’s union, American Federation of Teachers, lives in an open lesbian relationship.

It should come as no surprise when President Obama says he sees much of the growth in support for same sex marriage as “generational,” with strong support coming from our youth.

Attitudes reflect education. We have created a world in which it is illegal to teach youth in our public schools traditional religious values but it is not illegal to teach them competing values of nihilism, materialism, and relativism. And these competing values are actively promoted.

As elsewhere, the main victims are poor, minority kids, often from broken families, held hostage in these public schools and prohibited from being taught the very values that could save their lives.

Is there a way out? I only see one. Universal school choice. Liberate parents and kids from government and union controlled schools. In a free America, parents who don’t share Arne Duncan’s values shouldn’t have them forced on them.


British schools 'shun traditional values in race for exam results'

Children are failing to pick up traditional values at school as teachers increasingly prioritise exam results over the development of pupils’ “character”, according to a leading headmaster.

The sheer demands placed on timetables are leaving schools with little opportunity to promote resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, empathy and good manners, it was claimed.

Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, Berkshire, said old-fashioned values were traditionally passed on to pupils through competitive sport, artistic performances and voluntary work in the local community.

But he warned that this was being lost in many schools because of the “headlong pursuit of exam results” to climb league tables and hit targets.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, he said that families, religious leaders and the media were also failing to provide the moral leadership that children need at a young age.

The comments come as the Government prepares to publish the findings of an official evaluation of its new “national service” programme for teenagers on Wednesday.

The National Citizen Service offers 16-year olds the opportunity to take part in an outward-bounds course and voluntary work to give young people the “skills, values and confidence they will need as they move into adulthood”. In March, the Coalition said it was tripling the number of places on the programme to 30,000 this year in the wake of last summer’s riots.

In a separate development, a new research centre based at Birmingham University was also due to be launched on Wednesday to promote and strengthen a sense of “character” within schools, families, communities and the private sector.

The Jubilee Centre of Character and Values – based at the university’s School of Education – is being funded through a multi-million pound investment from the John Templeton Foundation.

Dr Seldon said: “The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe.

“Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or ‘public school’ values. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.”

He said it was an “indictment of us all” that these initiatives are needed at all.

A stronger grounding in “ethics and values from within schools and families, a better example from our political and religious leaders, and a more elevating diet from the media” would have off-set the need for such a centre to have been built, said Dr Seldon.

The comments come just months after the Prince of Wales said that schools should provide more team games, outdoor activities and practical workshops to help pupils develop character.

Writing today, Dr Seldon added: “Schools have too little opportunity to teach about character because of their headlong pursuit of exam results, while families no longer provide the same settled background that they did a generation ago for children to learn about values.”


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