Cracks in the Pot: How to Save the Department of Education
Efforts to dismantle the Department of Education will harm the most vulnerable of our young population: those who live with disabilities and those who are poor. Jimmy Carter, upon creating the department proclaimed, “The time has since passed for us to put a part-time effort into a full-time project”. Despite the noble goal of creating more equitable access to education, Republicans have opposed the department from its inception.
“The time has since passed for us to put a part-time effort into a full-time project” Jimmy Carter
Looking back on history bipartisan support for education initiatives only occurs during national crises. Otherwise conservative fear of overreach dominates the political discourse. What we know is the Department of Education is not unflawed, yet it is vital for the accountability and accessibility of education for America’s youth. Without it, disorder would reign through our already struggling education systems.
In the early 19th century it became obvious the local education systems lacked the political power to remain organized. During this period efforts targeted improving the professionalization of education. The federal government involved itself in training and advocating for college-educated teachers. Once it became apparent illiteracy was a widespread issue, we once again realized the gaps in our system. No one was tasked with tracking metrics of progress in our schools. Each local administration could run their programs however they pleased. This allowed many students to fall through the cracks and slip out of schools or for local extremists to capitalize on their agendas on religious messaging. Thus, the first Department of Education Act in 1867 was passed. The first commissioner, Henry Barnard created statistical data to track the best pedagogies in the educational field. He then spread his gospel throughout the various institutions in the United States.
Unfortunately, the fledgling department only lasted a few years. The fears of conservatives in the 1800s of federal overreach outweighed the gains of innovative research. For some time federal involvement in education stayed mute.
Then in 1917 Smith Hughes Vocational Literacy Education Act was passed. This was aimed at improving literacy rates among immigrants. At this time, Congress feared illiterates would become anarchists (or worse communist) if left uneducated.
Due to the improving the quality of life of Americans in the years after the Great Depression the 1946 School Lunch Act passed. It targeted health issues of malnutrition in schools.
Then the 1958 National Defense Education Act was enacted. It meant to boost scientific education during the Cold War, as fears of losing to the Soviets escalated. To counteract we expanded foreign language programs, science, and math curriculum. Overall we valued the global competitiveness of American schools.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, the federal involvement escalated, until Jimmy Carter’s proclamation that the nation needed a “full-time organization” to support education. By promoting the department into an official cabinet group, Carter signaled the level of newfound importance to schooling. Education was seen on par with national security, health, and human services, the economy, etc.
Since then legislation has aimed at closing the gaps in our fractured system. Some of the most popular programs include: supporting low-income children with the expanding PreK programs like Head Start, providing funding to students in universities with loans and work-study programs. Each legislation has brought more criticism about meddling with state’s rights and local jurisdiction. The opposition argued that local governments ought to govern schools as they see fit. This meddling, however, has created standards of accountability. Though federal stands with testing may feel excessive we must have some system to serve as an umbrella for all the nations’ schools.
Local municipalities must be accountable, standards for benchmarks of students’ progress are necessary. Otherwise, we would be unable to track what methodologies are effective, where are growth opportunities. That being said, the Common Core standards and frequent standardized tests are a nuisance, as well as an inaccurate metric of success. But, rather than destroying the Department, we need to bolster the institution. We know these tests aren’t working; we see the disarray of disastrous standards of our public schools with outdated textbooks, inconsistent technology, and under-supported staff, yet we carry on. Our “global competitiveness” is embarrassing. So why are we suggested to break apart the institution that monitors our education? Does averting our eyes solve any of our issues?
The case for the continuation of the Department of Education is not without strings. We need to work on revamping the thirty-year-old system; many of the critiques conservatives present against the Department are valid. Yet, these points should be considered opportunities for improvement rather than strikes against the institution.
The greatest criticism is the enormous spending. In 2019 an estimated $1 billion in grants were awarded to charter schools that either never opened, never existed, or closed shortly after opening, according to a report titled “Asleep at the Wheel’’ by Valerie Straws. In the early stages of analysis 15 states during the 2009–2014 period had 1,203 charter schools that were approved for aid despite never opening. Those schools accounted for 40% of the grant money in the CHPS program. We must consider if charter school fraud is a symptom of a broken system, are other grants as tainted? Or is this a singular issue? The budget must continue to reflect the needs of America’s schools, without deceit marring our expectations. After all, the spending in this field is intensive because the goal of educating all students in our nation is an incredible undertaking. If better manage the financial situation then these funds can be redirected towards more worthy causes such as improving school buildings, classroom technology, and supplies.
Accusations tend to focus on the DOE spending on Title I, or spending on low-income initiatives. “In many urban districts, a public school must be at least 60 percent poor to qualify for federal Title I aid” (Loveless). The focus on economic segregation creates disadvantages for students at the margins. When a child changes schools, if his/her new neighborhood is slightly wealthier then a student’s new school will not receive any federal funding. Rather than school districts being paid by the student status, they are paid by the economics of the area. “Unlike the federal funding of higher education, where federal dollars follow the student, Title I dollars reward concentrated economic segregation” (Loveless). As the money from the federal government funnels down into schools much is lost to bureaucracy. We have a rather robust system for funding students in higher institutions, yet we are unable to do the same for students in primary schools.
The solution to these complaints on cost is not to sever the organ, but to treat the disease. How can we make education more affordable? Because schooling for those of low-income is one of the only remaining avenues to make a more equitable America. If we destroy this path we destroy any semblance of peace in this nation. Research has shown that lower socioeconomic status is linked to poor health, more violence, and greater disillusionment in society (Violence & Socioeconomic Status).
With a lack of education, people lack the self-efficacy to envision a better future. The socialization skills and democratic values taught in school are crucial for creating a just society. Paring down this Department or its initiatives will ultimately harm those who are experiencing disadvantages such as poverty.
There are ways to change the system. If states feel there is too much bureaucracy then we create opportunities for appeals. On the DOE website, the departments’ goal is to serve as an “emergency response’’ to fill the gaps of state funding. Those gaps can only be addressed if they are heard. Strengthening the bonds between federal and state entities is a necessity. Furthermore, we ought to fund affordable education initiatives for students to work in exchange for tuition. There are programs like this at Warren Wilson College or Alice Lloyd College. We can then use federal money to fund free community college courses to create more equitable access.
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act is the source of other complaints. However, it is beyond rude to consider the cost of special education more than what we bargained for. “Four percent of students that are learning disabled return to the classroom following special education in 1994” (Loveless). Metrics such as these set the wrong expectations. Special education is not meant to “fix” any students. The truth of the matter is that these students are not broken. As a nation that is allegedly built on diversity, we HAVE TO honor the diversity of learning.
We need to care for levels of mental capacity and processing styles. If we dismantle the Department of Education funding these programs will certainly be cut. We would essentially decide those students don’t matter. “Alice Parker, California’s director of special education, estimates that as many as 250,000 of the state’s special education students are designated as learning disabled because of reading difficulties stemming from poor instruction” The real culprit in these misdiagnoses is lack of attention. Large classroom sizes are a concern. Limited resources are the issue. We ought to provide those students with additional funding to close the gap. Title I is meant to care for students who see the world differently. It is wrong to leave any student out of our calculations in schooling. Isolation is dysfunctional and discriminatory. The cost of special education is a necessary one, there is no other way to see it.
Historically, the only group to hold educational institutions accountable is the federal government. To erase this accountability allows local entities to wreak havoc. Leaders could confound lessons with personal agendas and create an unequal society. Schools are sanctuaries; to make them harder to access creates a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. We cannot rank and discriminate against students. Education is too important to allow for such disorders.
So what do we do now, do we destroy the system or do we reconstruct it?
(An Overview of the U.S. Department of Education — Pg 1) (Loveless; “A History Of The Department Of Education”; Monteiro et al.)
“A History Of The Department Of Education.” NPR.Org, https://www.npr.org/2018/06/24/623024822/a-history-of-the-department-of-education. Accessed 7 Apr. 2021.
An Overview of the U.S. Department of Education — Pg 1. US Department of Education (ED), 14 May 2018, https://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/focus/what.html.
Loveless, Diane Ravitch, and Tom. “Broken Promises: What the Federal Government Can Do To Improve American Education.” Brookings, 30 Nov. 1AD, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/broken-promises-what-the-federal-government-can-do-to-improve-american-education/.
Monteiro, Estela Maria Leite Meirelles, et al. “Culture Circles in Adolescent Empowerment for the Prevention of Violence.” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, vol. 20, no. 2, Apr. 2015, pp. 167–84. PubMed Central, doi:10.1080/02673843.2014.992028.
Violence & Socioeconomic Status. (2010). Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/violence