“A bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district- -all studied and appreciated as they merit- -are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.” When Benjamin Franklin penned these words, he was far from the minority with his opinion on education. In fact, many founders believed in public funded education such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and others. A society of the uniformed will only last as such for a finite period by either becoming informed or ceasing to be. But what would our founders think of our system today?
Gallup poles consistently show that Americans overwhelmingly believe their local schools are above average but at the same time believe public schooling in the nation as a whole are average or worse. I think it’s fair for me to infer, based on these numbers, that most Americans agree with having public education but that the system overall isn’t as good as it should be. Worldwide comparisons back this notion up. According to the OECD America leads the world in annual spending per student but is only slightly above average for performance. We already spend more than any other country but are middling in performance so you’d be hard pressed to convince me that throwing more money at the situation is the answer. Some like to point to Denmark as the shining example, like how well they pay their teachers, but other countries like Poland have shot up the ranks in recent years yet pay their teachers very little. At the same time, other areas that set Denmark apart, like their more lax stance on homework, contrast that of other high scoring countries like China who enforce spending almost 5 times as many hours dedicated to homework.
One way in which I think we can learn from Denmark is how they’ve abandoned the world wide method of coercion and instead implemented the free market idea of consumer choice. Education is a product in the form of labor from a teacher. The students and their parents are the consumer. Many opponents of this thought will point to failed voucher systems but it has never been truly tried because of heavy regulation and tight control over what the system entails. At the same time this can’t be the ‘fix all’ solution that some proponents claim it to be.
The biggest contributor in the US of that exertion of control over the educational system is the Department of Education. Technically speaking a state can control their education however they wish with a few federal discrimination laws they must adhere to along with other certain guidelines and policies from ED that must be met. This is especially true when any state is accepting federal funding. The federal government collects taxes from the people. They in turn offer money to the state governments in the form of incentives which means they comes with a catch. While the states do fund the vast majority of public education, the federal government still funds over 8% of all public education in the country. Potentially losing 8% of 100’s of billions of dollars is nothing to sneeze at and states and their politicians certainly don’t want to be the ones cutting spending on education. The reason I say the federal government is the biggest contributor when it comes to control is because they are the only player with their hand in everybody’s pot. Indiana may have more control over Indiana’s education but they don’t have any control over the 49 other state’s education. The reason this matters is because of the differences I pointed out with Denmark and other high ranking countries. What works for one area may not be best for another and when one centrally controlled agency (an unelected, president appointed agency I might add) sets one system of standards that all must adhere to then how can we expect any other results than the ones we currently have? Read about NCLB and ESSA for more info on these standards.
Why, then, do we have a Department of Education? There is a history before the modern ED of today but formally the Department was started in 1980 under then president Jimmy Carter. The original function was to collect data from schools which they could in turn give out advice to enhance any deficiencies from this data. This turned in to forcing the states to pay to collect this data and then forcing the states to adhere to these policies in order to receive federal funding in return (incentives). From the beginning there was opposition from Republicans. In fact it was apart of their official platform until President Bush Jr. passed NCLB. The most outspoken defenders of the department has always comes from the left though since NCLB there has been little opposition from either side. Even after a historic senate confirmation vote over appointing Betsy DeVos, where for the first time the United States vice president cast the tie breaking vote, we still won’t hear a peep from the left about whether or not we should have a Department of Education. This is the insanity of the two party system within American politics. The left will pump up federal power in one area of government. The right will take control and abuse that power in the eyes of the left. The right will do the same and likewise complain of the abuse when the left takes control. All the while both sides are continually making the presence of the federal government ever larger with no end in sight. The right solution would be to start shutting down these agencies and restricting the reach of the unconstitutional practices of our beurocrats but alas…. I’m a realist. As much as I applaud the idea of shutting down areas of government incompetence, I understand this isn’t something you can do overnight. Our politicians are professionals at making the masses dependent on their policies. Another role ED has is guaranteeing student loans and also directly giving out student loans. Shutting down the department means figuring out how to deal with the massive amount of loans and grants the agency deals with which is no small feat. There is no longer an easy answer here. All of this said though means whenever you hear your friends on the left complain of our new Secretary of Education, you can tell them to thank themselves and the politicians they continue to elect for creating and then protecting the agency we have today which is now ran by Betsy DeVos.