by Alice Salles
After one of the most contentious confirmations in history, wealthy Republican donor Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the United States education secretary. President Donald Trump’s pick had faced intense scrutiny over her lack of experience in public education, as well as her history of heavy donations to the Republican Party. But with the help of a historic tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence, DeVos was finally confirmed as the head of the Department of Education.
Prior to the confirmation, however, many of DeVos’ critics mentioned her policies as the main reasons why they would oppose her.
Claiming she fought against policies that would allow “our young people, all of them, to participate in our democracy and compete on a fair footing in the workforce,” these critics also suggested her support for “voucher systems that divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without requirements for accountability” would hurt children.
In defense of DeVos, many contended that the strong opposition she experienced prior to the confirmation had a lot more to do with who teachers unions prefer to see in power than who will keep the welfare of kids in mind. As the New York Post pointed out, the only two Senate Republicans who opposed DeVos are the only two who “routinely get A’s on the National Education Association’s ‘report card’ because they vote the union line.”
But the aversion teachers unions have to DeVos is on display. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, went as far as to say that the day DeVos was confirmed was a “sad day for children.” But the AFT isn’t an innocent party in the politics game. It invested heavily in Democratic politicians like former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
In the 2016 election cycle alone, the AFT spent over $19 million in Washington, and Hillary Clinton was their top recipient.
The former Democratic presidential nominee, the ATF wrote at the time, “shares our vision for America,” which includes blind support for teacher tenure — a policy that forces schools to keep bad teachers in classrooms and that DeVos vocally opposed long before Trump picked her as his education secretary. So it isn’t a surprise that organizations like the ATF would be so adamantly opposed to her nomination.
But despite the rhetoric, the Department of Education was created as a promise to teachers unions, meant to “fix” the problems created by state governments running public education at the time. The agency was never supposed to exist, as even Democrats disliked the idea at the time. As Reason Magazine’s Anthony L. Fisher explains, then-President Jimmy Carter created the department in 1979 as “a favor to a large and powerful special interest group,” and not “a necessary reorganization to allow the federal government to ‘meet its responsibilities in education more effectively, more efficiently, and more responsively,’ as then-President Jimmy Carter put it.”
DeVos may have undeniable ties to the Republican party, but her policies scare union leaders because they would allow for institutions to use public funds to run schools where staff members aren’t required to be unionized — not because either party is willing to put an end to the federal government’s control of public education.
Despite the fuss, DeVos isn’t the witch opposition leaders claim she is. But Democratic leaders aren’t the supporters of equality in education they claim to be either. The truth is that freeing education from the hands of bureaucrats would be the only answer to this problem, rendering both sides useless when it comes to setting an agenda.
Department of Education: Doing More Harm Than Good
The department was first created as a bureaucratic “fix” to state-run education, allowing the federal government to intervene in the educational affairs of individual states across the country. But instead of accomplishing what it set out to achieve, the department has, instead, used copious amounts of public funds to create and maintain bureaucracies that create and enforce regulations, including rules that hurt minorities who choose to attend for-profit “career” colleges or career schools — institutions that cater to the low-income population.
After all, if the federal government is going to offer student loans to the poor, why should it discriminate against those who opt for a technical school? Does Washington have something against offering low-income students an opportunity to have hands-on experience related to their career interests? Or perhaps they aren’t too fond of welders?
On average, the country spends over 23 percent of per capita income on its students, and yet it is clear that spending so much taxpayer money on education over the years has resulted in little to no improvement in quality. In 2015, America ranked 17th in educational performance out of forty countries. It ranked 2nd in general ignorance regarding voting patterns, social statistics, and other subjects.
When it comes to overall performance, private schools still beat public schools. This is a fact politicians all know about since most public school supporters opposing DeVos have children or grandchildren enrolled in private institutions. So why are we still debating who should head the Department of Education as opposed to how soon we could put an end to it?
Educating or Indoctrinating? Facts are Stubborn Things
Over the 30 years of its existence, the Department of Education has exerted a great deal of influence on K-12 education, mostly because public schools are only able to receive federal funding if they “follow certain federal guidelines.”
Teachers applying these standards are also the product of this influence, having been in the public education system before running off to college themselves.
In an article for the Mises Institute, professor of communication at the University of South Florida Loyd S. Pettegrew writes that the overwhelming majority of K-12 teachers working today in the public school system are highly politicized, with K-12 English classes becoming “ersatz social studies classes with biased content taught by moralizing pedagogues.”
He quotes David Labaree, professor in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, who claims that “education schools are solidly in the progressive camp ideologically.”
But now that the Department of Education will be run by partisans of different political ideologies, is it fair to contend that education standards may shift, allowing for different political ideas to take over?
When progressivism became a powerful force in America, the U.S. government became a powerful interventionist machine — domestically and abroad. The central tenet of progressivism, historian and author Thaddeus Russell writes, is that “the American national government is responsible for the reform and uplift of those ‘we’ deem to be living below ‘our’ standards, and that ‘they’ must be protected from their oppressors.” President Carter was a proud progressive who claimed he had seen the “lives and the hopes of people enriched beyond all expectations by actions of the Federal Government” during the inauguration of the then-newly minted Department of Health and Human Services.
He believed that the federal government has a role in ‘changing people’s lives’ as it sees fit, thus the creation of a federal bureaucracy tasked with the goal of overseeing the education of all American children.
As with anything else in government, these agencies aren’t nonpartisan institutions. They are run by people — people with agendas and political preferences.
Unless we’re willing to succumb to the standards defended by current and future administrations, having and supporting a federal education department should not be a priority. Abolishing it would still not be enough since education departments run by state governments would remain in place. After all, public schools in America have, for the past decades, worked to make students comfortable with the idea of living in a “Big Brother police state control grid.” This is just the type of “schooling” the youth requires to stay obedient throughout their adulthood, never questioning the government’s official narrative.
Instead of giving in to conformity, what we must remember is that unless parents are willing to surrender their children’s education entirely to what the government deems appropriate, choice is what should guide personal education policy. And more choices are only possible when there’s freedom to experiment. Having a powerful education department in Washington D.C. overseeing every single aspect of every child’s education is the very opposite of freedom.
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