Department of Education Must Pursue Reform

Most liberals, and in fact quite a few conservatives, are worried about the recent appointment of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education. Some see this appointment as a serious blow to the educational welfare of America’s students. They fear that policies enacted by the Department of Education will have recurring impacts on how our students learn, what they learn, and the way they will think in the future. Those fears are justified, but before we draw any conclusions about the future, let’s look at the Department as a whole.

This appointment has caused old concerns about the effectiveness of the Department to reappear, and it’s time to take a look at what it actually does. Like all government institutions, it was created for a purpose, specifically to ensure the adequate education of America’s citizens. Since 1979, the Department has been trying to do just that, an honorable pursuit. But that pursuit has become diluted, and there are a few key problems with the Department and a few reasons why DeVos’ appointment doesn’t foreshadow a failure in American education.

First, the Department is not representative of the entire American educational system. Regardless of what political beliefs you have, education still isn’t an explicit federal power, and the vast majority of education in America is run by individual states and by private entities. As long as states continue to accredit schools using their own jurisdiction, the power of the Department of Education is limited. I hesitate to call the current administration “truly Republican,” but it certainly has proposed limiting federal power, so the impact of DeVos’ actions will probably be limited anyway, allowing more leeway for states to navigate their own educational obstacles.

It’s also important to remember the importance of local roles in education. Getting involved in a local school board or by participating in county elections can often impact students more than a sweeping federal Department of Education. The education of our nation’s children is not dependent on one woman sitting in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, we should realize that the Department of Education doesn’t actually do all that much educating. It simply distributes funds to allow access to education. The Department uses much of its budget to fund student loan programs that help students pay for higher learning. This assistance helps, but in the long run, it can drive up college tuition. Universities understand that if they raise prices, the government will fund loans to meet those prices, and they will receive even more money for their own education objectives. In this scenario, the Department of Education isn’t actually directly controlling education, only subsidizing student loans. It provides some students access to college in the short term, while perpetuating astronomic tuition price increases in the long term.

The Department has other issues as well, especially in its bloated bureaucracy—the same structure that conservatives always complain about, and for good reason. Money that could be used effectively is instead thrown around at the wrong objectives.

Despite having clear flaws, most criticism of the Department of Education is unfounded. Many people fail to differentiate between the proper noun, Department of Education, and the abstract idea of education. Some conservatives call for the abolishment of the Department of Education, but are often heard as saying “I want to abolish education.” People that are fundamentally against educating the population are few and far between. Education is not a partisan issue, but how we provide that education is. Those who defend the Department of Education will point to the millions of people that it helps, and this is undeniable.

Conservatives should understand that doing away with the Department is definitely going to hurt people. People benefit from the Department of Education, as it provides services for upwards of 55 million students. Even so, liberals shouldn’t tout these benefits as a victory. A federal department supplied with $200 billion to help educate people is, of course, inherently going to accomplish its goal to an extent. With that much funding, the Department has the financial power to enact reform.

The problem isn’t that Americans are against education. The issue is that liberals and conservatives disagree on the best ways to spend money to facilitate that education. And when conservatives try to make more effective use of funds, they’re unjustly attacked and said to be against education in general. Liberals benefit from programs that an enormous government provides while disregarding both the fact that their success is due to massive funding and the problems that come with it, particularly the administrative cost and the extra tax burden that it puts on local counties that could be investing locally.

Perhaps the most pervasive problem with centralized education, however, is with the teachers’ unions. Even those on the far-left have issues with the government-bending strength of teachers’ unions, but those unions wouldn’t have been able to establish themselves on K Street if there wasn’t money and power in the government to influence. Money attracts people—simple as that. These unions help teachers, but they also restrict the abilities of schools to incentivize success and encourage sub-par teaching by guaranteeing teacher employment. That’s a problem.

By analyzing, and yes, sometimes cutting funding, conservatives aren’t trying to deprive teachers of their jobs by weakening unions, and they’re not out to strip students of their education. With ideas like educational devolution or school vouchers, they’re trying to make more effective use of our money.

If the Department of Education is to survive, it needs to make fundamental changes. It should stop generalizing education and should understand that each student learns differently. We need regulations to ensure that our students are adequately informed and educated, but we have to allow for individuality in the classroom, for freedom in school choice, and most importantly, less ad-hominem dialogue in discussing that reform.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor