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The Education Assassins

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A CONTEST for the least popular arm of the federal government would have many strong contenders.

There’s the soft, cuddly Internal Revenue Service. Also the National Security Agency, America’s Peeping Tom. And let’s not forget the Environmental Protection Agency, seen by many manufacturers as one big, mossy, bossy paean to regulation run amok.

But for politicians, in particular Republicans, another challenger comes into play: the Department of Education.

In a Republican presidential debate during the 2012 campaign, it wasn’t just on the list of “three agencies of government” that Rick Perry famously promised to eliminate. It was one of the two that he succeeded in naming before he stopped short, forgetting the third.

And it finds itself once again in Republican presidential candidates’ cross hairs, all the more so because of Common Core standards, supported by the education secretary, Arne Duncan, and cited by many excessively alarmed conservatives as a federal takeover of curriculum.

With the notable exception of Jeb Bush, whose Common Core advocacy is possibly his greatest vulnerability in the primaries, nearly all of the major Republican candidates have disparaged the standards, including, just last week, Chris Christie, who once supported them.

And most of these politicians have called for the downsizing of the education department. A few have followed Perry’s lead and said that they want it dead and gone. That’s the position of Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio has signaled a willingness to consider the department’s elimination.

It could use more friends these days even among Democrats. Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and a former preschool teacher, has joined forces with Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, to sponsor legislation that would leave the department and its secretary with much less influence over states.

There’d be no federal say, for example, in how (or if) public schoolteachers are evaluated. If the bill passes — and it has significant bipartisan support — the department would be a shadow of its former self.

Alexander supports that humbling even though he once ran the department, as the first President Bush’s secretary of education.

“I believe there’s a federal role in education,” he told me recently, saying that the federal government affords an important bully pulpit for higher standards and more spending on students from poor families, to name two priorities. “But you don’t need a department. You need a president who cares about education and a Treasury Department that cuts the checks.” Much of the rest is needless red tape.

Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, didn’t wholly disagree. I approached him because he worked in George W. Bush’s administration, when the department’s power grew with No Child Left Behind, and he’s seen as a moderate Republican. He’s now the president of Purdue University.

“It’s not a ludicrous idea, honestly,” he said, referring to the abolition of the department. He noted that until 1979, when it was established as a cabinet-level agency, the country got along without it.

And now? “Let’s be gentle,” he said, “and say that we haven’t seen dramatic education improvement since the federal government set up shop.”

In many ways, no, we haven’t.

But there’s much more at work than the failings of the education department, which contributes only about 10 percent of funding nationally for K-through-12 schooling and has only so much impact on what happens in classrooms.

And there are as many reasons to fret over the department’s disappearance — or, more plausibly, its severe curtailing — as to root for it.

“When states are left on their own, low-income kids, kids with disabilities and minority kids always come last,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington. “Always. Federal resources help to counteract this tendency, but it’s more about federal leverage.”

There’s also plenty of evidence that when states are left to gauge the success of students, they may produce suspiciously upbeat results at odds with any nationwide measurement.

“Without federal involvement, states define their own standards of proficiency,” said Joel Klein, the former chancellor for New York City public schools. “Some states will do good stuff, but there will also be laggards and a lot of happy talk.”

And as he and many other education advocates pointed out, that’s a national concern that deserves the attention of the federal government and of a discrete department sufficiently empowered to address it.

We’re a mobile country, with people routinely relocating across state lines, so Arkansas, Kentucky or Texas isn’t educating children only for its needs. Each is educating them for the entire country’s future, and because America’s companies compete in a global marketplace, the skills and erudition of tomorrow’s workers are a national issue, not a state one. As it stands now, even with the education department, the extent to which American schools are funded and controlled locally puts us out of step with most developed nations.

If the education department and its secretary vanished, how much would the bully pulpit that Alexander mentioned shrink? What signal would Americans involved in education — and Americans in general — get about education as a national priority?

Daniels applauded the current secretary, Duncan, as “a helpful voice” and “good conscience” over the last six and a half years for necessary reforms and standards. He wondered aloud if such a voice and conscience would have existed without an education department.

I wonder if federal funding for education — about $140 billion annually, which is a meaningful amount — would possibly stay the same. It goes against organizational and human nature to appropriate money without the sorts of conditions and accountability that are the province of the education department.

“We have to right-size the federal role,” said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that supports school choice. “We absolutely have to give some power back to the states.”

But Petrilli stopped well shy of calling for the education department’s erasure, in part because he asked, “Would you abolish funding as well?” The department administers about half of that $140 billion.

It has been around long enough now that its outright elimination would be an extreme measure. Qualms with the way it functions are one thing; debates about its power and size are legitimate, even necessary. But what some of the Republican presidential candidates are doing is the equivalent of looking at a person who’s having a really bad hair day and recommending decapitation.

While more thoughtful conservatives like Alexander have sketched out how things might work without an education department, these firebrands are engaged in theater, not real debate. They’re after applause lines, not solutions.

And that’s one of my chief gripes with the battle cry to banish the Department of Education. It’s policy by sound bite. There’s too much of that already.



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