How do you get people to refuse a helping hand?
Answer: Prove to them that it’s not helping.
That’s the strategy of the Trump administration in regard to his cabinet of billionaires. The Reality TV star turned President has nominated a series of out-of-touch and unqualified one percenters to head various federal government agencies.
Rex Tillerson, Rick Perry, Ben Carson – Each of these silver spooned numbskulls was put in place to “prove” to the American public how inane and useless the federal government is – by making the federal government inane and useless.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the Department of Education with its Republican mega-donor turned Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.
DeVos has spent her entire adult life buying off mostly Republican lawmakers throughout the country to destroy public schools and replace them with charter, private and parochial schools.
But the endgame for putting a person who barely ever walked into a public school in charge of nationwide public school policy is clear – she’s there to demonstrate why the department should be disbanded.
With every idiotic statement, every Unconstitutional policy suggestion – she’s a corporate sponsored demo of why we need to trash this cabinet position altogether.
This has been the conservative dream since President Ronald Reagan. How dare his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter create a Department of Education, in the first place! Not only did Ronnie, the B-movie actor turned chief executive, have to defeat Carter, he needed to erase all of his predecessor’s policies. (Sound familiar? [Cough!] [Obamacare!] [Cough!])
And with Betsy DeVos’ help, Trump may finally get to realize Reagan’s dream.
To be fair, President George W. Bush did his fair share to make the department unpalatable. And so did Barack Obama!
Under Carter, the department was an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which tried to bring equity to America’s public schools. However, Bush transformed it into No Child Left Behind, a blatant federal power grab changing the focus to high stakes standardized testing and punishing schools that taught poor children.
Obama took this terrible legislation to its inevitable conclusion and transformed the Department of Education into a bribe factory, dangling federal help before impoverished schools only if these schools would spend it on test prep, edutech software and Common Core. Never mind that these “reforms” don’t actually help children. It was all about helping the corporations behind them.
Much of the modern zeitgeist behind the continued movement to disband the department comes from authentic bipartisan opposition to these changes. The modern Department of Education hasn’t been much of a helping hand for almost two decades. It’s been a cruel taskmaster and a money laundering service for the publishing and testing industry. And it’s overstepped its federal authority coercing states to do as Washington bureaucrats (or at least their wealthy donors) demand.
No wonder people want to disband the department!
It’s a rallying cry that’s not hard to get behind. Unless you think about it for two minutes.
Because it’s not the Department of Education that’s the problem. It’s what we’ve done to it.
The department has a vital and important role to play in making sure our system of public education serves everyone. Speaking in broad terms, the department should be dedicated to these three things: ensuring public schools are being properly funded, student and parent civil rights are not being violated and to be a repository for national data and research.
These are incredibly important. Right now we have one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the world. The majority of public education funding comes not from the federal government or the states, but from individual communities. If you live in a poor neighborhood, your kids get less education funding. If you live in a rich neighborhood, your kids get more. This is why the nearly 50% of all public school children living in poverty are struggling academically – we aren’t providing them with the resources to succeed.
The state and federal government could be doing something about that. At the federal level, the department of education oversees billions of dollars in grants to poor schools. Admittedly much of that money is tied to standardized testing and other corporate education reforms. We should cut those ties. We should provide help for proven, authentic education practices freely chosen by these districts. That’s something that could have a huge impact on student success. And it’s a project we should expand, not destroy under draconian budget cuts or the closure of the department.
Second, we have to admit that parents’ and students’ civil rights are often in jeopardy. This means special education students seeking an appropriate learning environment and modifications. This means students being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. This means minority students facing disproportionate discipline policies, unfair grading and/or lack of opportunities offered to other racial or ethnic groups. This means women and transgender students suffering discriminatory dress codes or bathroom policies. In short, it means that someone needs to be the moderator and protector of student and parent rights.
And finally, there needs to be a repository of national student data. This has gotten a negative connotation lately because of Bush and Obama’s incredibly permissive policies allowing edutech companies to collect a horde of student data for economic purposes. Let me be clear: The department shouldn’t be doing that at all. Student privacy should be respected. Computer programs and apps should not collect sensitive information about individual students to be sold to advertisers or used to market products to them.
But there is an incredible amount of aggregate information about student groups collected by the federal government that could be used to help improve the lives of students. This includes information on the racial proficiency gap and the amount of resources provided by states and municipalities. Moreover, we need an impartial entity to fund educational research about which reforms actually help students learn. Relying on corporations to fund research that “proves” the efficacy of their own products is not good science.
In short, disbanding the Department of Education would be a disaster. What would happen to Pell Grants, for instance? What would happen to the bundles of federal money that boost our public schools? Who would make sure states are doing their jobs? Where could we go to find accurate data about how our schools are doing nationally and not just state-by-state?
If we got rid of the department, at best these jobs would fall back on other government agencies that haven’t the funding, staff or ability to accomplish them. More likely, it would result in the elimination of billions of education dollars that the states simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) replace. Abuses against students on the grounds of civil rights, gender, special education, etc. would skyrocket with little to no recourse. And we would be in the dark about how well we were educating our nation’s children.
I sympathize with those who wish to make government more efficient, but the Department of Education is not a place to make cuts. If you really wanted to close an unnecessary federal department, start with the most recent one – the Department of Homeland Security. Nowhere else is there a more obvious duplication of services and waste of tax dollars to provide a service that was already being provided. But you never hear anyone suggest we close this department because (1) it was proposed by a Republican, and (2) as a nation, we have a broad, bipartisan priority on the safety of our citizens.
If only we had the same for public education!
But we don’t. In fact, many conservatives scoff at the very idea of public schools on the grounds that it’s “socialism” – as if social security, Medicare and a standing military were not!
Too many people have bought into the lie that there is something un-American about public school. On the contrary, our system is implicit in our very form of government and the flower of our founding fathers’ thoughts.
The rich and powerful don’t want a robust system of public education because it goes against their interests. An informed, thinking public is harder to control. They especially don’t want minorities or the poor to be well-educated because once people realize how much they’re being exploited, they won’t continue to submit to the status quo.
In short, the Department of Education needs to change. It needs to be revitalized from the ground up. And DeVos is not the person to do it.
However, we shouldn’t let her incompetence make us throw it all away. We need to find ways to agitate, resist and survive the Trump administration while preserving as much as we can of our Democracy – and our sanity – in the process. We need to find and support prospective lawmakers and public servants who will actually represent us, the people, instead of Trump’s billionaire buddies. We need a robust, grassroots movement to take back our government.
And then we can begin the hard work of making our government work for us again. Part of that will involve the Department of Education.