Sunday, May 13, 2012

Eliminating the US Department of Education: Is it really that nutty an idea?

Gary Johnson proposes eliminating
the US Dept. of Education, and, no,
he's not nuts.
Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson believes in the elimination of the US Department of Education.  Is this an extreme position?  Let's take a look at several of the myths about what such an elimination would mean.

Myth #1--Eliminating the Department of Education would end all Federal role in public education.  Not bloody likely.  It isn't like the Feds did not have a role in public education before 1979, when President Jimmy Carter created the stand-alone department.  Most of the functions that went into the new Department of Education were split off from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare [which was renamed the Department of Health and Human Services].  In addition, various programs from the Department's of Justice, Defense, HUD, and Agriculture were included, although Headstart, Department of Agriculture school lunch programs, Department of the Interior Indian Education programs, and Department of Labor training programs were held out.

So what is envisioned is not (some would say, unfortunately) the complete elimination of Federal roles in public education, but a return to the organization in which the Office of Education under the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was reduced from cabinet status.

Myth #2--Public education needs a cabinet-level spokesperson.  There are excellent reasons for eliminating the cabinet-level post for Education, and the foremost has been that the position has generally been held by hack politicians (Lamar Alexander), ideologues (William Bennett), or supposedly successful school reformers like Richard Riley (who gave us high-stakes testing), Roderick Paige (No Child Left Behind) and Arne Duncan (Race to the Top).

Current SecED Arne Duncan
has funnled Fed $$ away from
traditional schools and weakened
due process rights of teachers.
There is no example of leadership at the US Secretary of Education level that can be provided to suggest that these individuals have left American public schools any better off than they were before the establishment of the Department of Education.

In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction.  For example, not only has President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, been architect of the disastrous Race to the Top program, which (as my friend John Young is fond of reminding us) has absolutely NO research basis supporting it, he has also presided over such policies as investing Federal Education dollars directly into charter schools rather than traditional schools, and reducing the due process protections for teachers at all levels accused of inappropriate behavior.

We don't need a Secretary of Education.

Myth #3--Eliminating the Department of Education would significantly reduce the funds available to public schools.

Not hardly.  Let's look at a slightly more reliable arm of the government for that data:  the US Census Bureau.  In its May 2011 report of funding public education (which uses 2009 data, which is--as usual with the Feds--the latest available), the Census Bureau concludes that the Federal government provides only 9.5% of the funding for primary and secondary public education.

Let's look at it from the other end:  the States and localities provide 90.5% of the funding for public education.

Moreover, the funding levels vary radically by state.  In Delaware, for example, the Feds provide only 6.6% of education funding--we provide the other 93.4% ourselves.  The range reported by the Census Bureau runs from a high of 15.6% in Louisiana to a low of 4.0% in New Jersey.

It is also important to remember that not all of the Federal funding comes via the Department of Education.

But it is also important to note that, especially under Ronald Reagan (imagine that!), the Department of Education was used to weaken local control of public education by increasing the power held by the States:
President Reagan also took steps to increase state power over education at the expense of local school districts. Federal funds that had flowed directly to local districts were redirected to state government. Moreover, federal monies were provided to beef up education staffing at the state level. The result was to seriously erode the power of local school districts.
This actually makes tremendous sense from a political standpoint.  Diverting Federal Education dollars from local districts to the States, and allowing the Governors to beef up their own educational bureaucraies is a tried-and-true mechanism for passing out pork into the political system rather than pushing money down into the classrooms.

[The assertion that Reagan gutted Federal spending in Education is, however, unwarranted; in 1980 the Department of Education budget was $14 billion; when Reagan left office it was $20 billion.]

Now for some realities:

Reality #1--Big, heavily funded Federal initiatives in public education have, almost uniformly, been failures.  I am not going to rehash here all the disasters that accompanied No Child Left Behind, because it has expired due to "death by waiver," only to be replaced by something (you didn't think it was possible) . . . worse.  Quoth WaPo:

But instead of offering states the right to opt out of the 2014 [NCLB] goal, the administration said they would grant waivers only to those states that did what they wanted in terms of school reform. And the Education Department’s reforms have done nothing to limit damaging high-stakes standardized testing, but instead exacerbated the problem by encouraging states to evaluate teachers in part by student test scores, a scheme assessment experts say is invalid.
In fact, RTTT has been a virtually unmitigated disaster.  Just look at Delaware's first-year report in which a significant amount of sophistry has to be expended to explain away the fact that, despite all the high hopes, Delaware test scores in the first year of the program declined precipitously.  When that happens, you generally blame one of three possible suspects:  the students, the teachers, or the test. RTTT proponents blame the test . . . you know, the test they devised.

I really, really, really (did I say really) encourage you to read about what Delaware spent its first-year allocation of about $28 million from the total $112 million grant on.  I pretty much defy you to find any spending on Delaware's worst poverty-stricken students, or any flexibility given to local schools or school districts.

It is easy to predict that Race to the Top will be another colossal failure, for two reasons.  

Reason one:  although the people designing and implementing it are all good people, they are fighting two realities:  nothing they are doing has any basis in educational research, and no massive Federal strategic endeavor in public education (since, and including, Headstart) have ever actually worked.

Reason two:  all of these Federal initiatives have created not just one (the Federal Department of Education) but two (the State Departments of Education) new levels of bureaucracy for local school districts to satisfy.  You think I'm kidding?  The program euphemstically known as "the Consolidated Grant" in Delaware is how the State parcels out that Federal money.  First, the State adds its own requirements on top of the Federal requirements for how the money should be spent and reported.  Then, the State requires an annual submission of the grant that, for each district, runs to hundreds of pages of carefully proofread tables.  

Every district in the State employs at least one senior district office administrator whose only function is to submit that grant and insure that the district does not run afoul of State auditors.  That administrator usually has a secretary and two or three assistants, and even that isn't enough.  In the last three weeks before the grant applications are due, go to any school district office in Delaware and you will find literally a dozen senior officials spending countless hours long into the evening proofreading that grant and arguing over which tiny details of spending on this or that might cause their funds to be held up.

By the time the grant proposal is completed, neither the Superintendent nor the School Board retains ANY flexibility in spending the Federal dollars that have been co-mingled with State dollars to such an extent that they are now inseparable.

Race To The Top simply added a whole new level of complexity to the already failing bureaucratic system that keeps Federal or State money from reaching our children in their classrooms.

Reality #2--Less could well be more without the US Department of Education.  What are the compliance costs to local school districts for all of these State and Federal regulations?  It is difficult to tell, because very little sound research has been done in the area, and some of that may be ideologically suspect even if accurate.  However, some data is available.    In 2005, for example, the Connecticut Department of Education reported that the $70.2 million in Federal funds received under Title I of NCLB had entailed $112.2 million in compliance and administrative costs--thus making the grant a $42 million net loser for the State.  The Superintendent of Loudon County (VA) Public Schools testified before Congress on the administrative costs of Federal intrusions like NCLB:
The most recent OCR data collection was completed this past December and required aggregating and disaggregating more than 12 categories of data with more than 144 fields for each of our 50 elementary schools and 263 fields of data for each of our 24 secondary schools for a total of 13,994 elements. For LCPS, this required 532 hours of staff time, at an estimated cost of $25,370, which translates into diverting 82 instructional days away from our students.
Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson has repeatedly asserted that every $11 of Federal Education funding comes with $16 worth of administrative and compliance costs.  I have not been able to find the source of that statistic, but the individual statistics that are generally supportive of that ratio.

Administrative and compliance costs clearly cost our school districts billions of dollars each year.

Gary Johnson has proposed that a 43% reduction in Federal Education funding with a commensurate reduction in administrative guidelines and compliance would actually represent an increase in the Federal funds available to local school districts.

And he seems to be right.

Reality #3--Severing compliance from funding would not be a bad thing.  There are certain areas in which, arguably, the Federal government has a legitimate role in insuring compliance.  For example, local school districts are notorious for skimping on Special Education funding, and on spending the funds they do have . . . unwisely.  But the relationship between the quality of Special Education programs and the current use of funding and administrative requirements to police them has never been demonstrated to be effective (and in fact, despite repeated promises, the Feds have never even met their own guidelines for Special Education funding).  There are other inspection and compliance models available that could set and enforce standards for the education of Special Needs students, but there has, truthfully, been little research done in this area because the US Department of Education is wedded to a top-down, bureaucratic, funding-driven model.

Here's the point:  we need to have the discussion about what is the appropriate Federal (and State!) role in education.  Right now, Federal strategic initiatives are consuming billions of dollars . . . and failing.  States are running roughshod over the school districts and building bureaucratic empires based on being the "middle man" for Federal education dollars.

I have my doubts that a President Gary Johnson would manage to get the US Department of Education abolished very easily, but he could start the conversation about removing the most intrusive and costly Federal influences in public education, which could only benefit our children.


tom said...

"Gary Johnson has proposed that a 43% reduction in Federal Education funding with a commensurate reduction in administrative guidelines and compliance would actually represent an increase in the Federal funds available to local school districts."

Or better yet, since Gary's block grants would still come w/ strings attached; since there's not a shred of evidence that federal education spending has benefited students in any way (and plenty of evidence to the contrary); and since there is a conspicuous lack of any power even remotely related to education enumerated in Article I, Section 8; why not entirely eliminate federal meddling in education.

That would cut 3.675% from the federal budget and return it to the taxpayers (using numbers from FY2011--the last time Congress actually did their job & passed a budget). Since this would go to increased consumption, savings & investment, states w/ an sales tax would immediately see a small jump in revenue, and in the medium to long term, all 3 factors would cause job growth and a larger tax base nationwide.

If Gary's +$11 = -$16 figure is correct it would also save the States collectively $205 Billion that is currently wasted complying with regulations.

john said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
john said...

That's a lotta jobs in that 205B. LOL.

john said...


Excellent post! Are trying to get me to vote for Johnson? Keep this up and it may work.

tom said...

"I have my doubts that a President Gary Johnson would manage to get the US Department of Education abolished very easily, but he could start the conversation about removing the most intrusive and costly Federal influences in public education, which could only benefit our children."

President Gary Johnson could do a lot more than just start the conversation. He could zero the DOE out in his budget (in order to force Congress to actually debate any funding given to them). He could veto any appropriations bill that allocated money to them. He could downsize them via attrition, refusing or delaying appointments, or aggressively firing employees for even the slightest of causes.

Don't forget that we would have Libertarian VP Jim Grey presiding over the Senate instead of Daniel Inouye or whoever replaces him. And if Gary Johnson got elected, the winds would have to be blowing in a sufficiently Libertarian direction that we would also have 3-5 Libertarian Senators and a few dozen Representatives elected on his coattails. That should provide enough of a libertarian swing vote to do lots of damage to Big Government as Usual.

tom said...

"That's a lotta jobs in that 205B"

Yep. And there's an extra $346B available to the private sector and/or the state governments to assist those former parasites in finding new jobs. Maybe even honest jobs if the bulk of it ends up turning into tax cuts.

john said...

no disagreeing, just pointing out that those employed by the 205B will fight.

Steve Newton said...


Are you coming to the LP of DE convention on Saturday? You usually do. And if you do, are you in support of actually getting Gary nominated there? I understand that there are some folks who feel we should hold off and not nominate him right now.

tom said...

Steve, Please contact me via email: tom at uffner dot com

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