Republicans opposed the Department of Education from its beginning and regularly threaten to abolish it now, arguing that educational policy should be reserved to the states. Two respected Democrats also objected to the department’s creation almost 40 years ago. New York Sen. Daniel Moynihan warned that it would become a partisan sword. New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm worried about divorcing education from other policy areas vital to student success, such as making sure they had decent housing and enough to eat.
History has proved the critics right. It’s time for the department to be dismantled. It has done some good, especially in pointing out education inequity. But more often it has served political, not educational, interests.
In fact, the Department of Education was created by President Carter in part as a gift to the National Education Association for the union’s early support of his candidacy. Politics was the department’s original sin, and that reality has gotten only worse.
Although President Reagan opposed the department’s existence, he recognized its political utility. His secretary of Education, William J. Bennett, used the influence of the office as a weapon in the culture wars by promoting “traditional” curriculums. Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s choice for secretary, is likely to continue its politicization. She has a track record of advancing school vouchers and charter schools. It seems probable that she will advocate for a privatization agenda, no matter the views of local communities.
This politicization of education is most clearly evident in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and the department’s enforcement of its provisions. This measure–a signature part of President George W. Bush’s legacy, with an assist from Sen. Edward Kennedy–required the restructuring and potentially the closing of an entire school if all its students in specific subgroups (for example, minority, economically disadvantaged, or special ed students) did not achieve proficiency on reading and math tests. It rejected the idea that poverty, students’ home lives or other factors outside the schoolhouse might contribute to low achievement. Such suggestions were just “excuses” for bad teaching.