Do We Really Need a Department of Education?

“Don’t you agree that it’s time to get rid of the Department of Education?”  My good friend Joe asked me that question at the end of an evening recently. Before I could answer, he added, “The Department has been around for about 45 years, and public schools have just gotten worse and worse.”

I should mention that Joe is a hard-core Republican, deeply conservative but not a Trumpian. We argue politics from time to time, and I figured he was just jerking my chain, giving me something to stew about until we saw each other again.

His strategy worked.  I did spend some time thinking about how I would convince my friend that the Department was essential.  This turned out to be far more difficult than I expected.

Some background information may be helpful.  Because ‘education’ is not mentioned in our Constitution, it is therefore the responsibility of the sovereign states, according to the Tenth Amendment, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” 

That has not kept Washington from getting involved in higher education, however.  For example, during our Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 created the Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and the second Morrill Act (1890) essentially guaranteed the survival of HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, by prohibiting discrimination. The GI Bill enabled millions of veterans to get an education, creating our middle class. Later, Pell Grants opened up colleges to millions of low income students. 

But K-12 education has been a different kettle of fish, a hands-off situation for the federal government.  However, after the Russians launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, in October, 1957,  President Eisenhower and the Congress felt they had to improve American public education. The result was NDEA, and the D is noteworthy. It stands for DEFENSE, which is to say that, in 1958, the only way President Eisenhower could persuade Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act was to maintain that improving education would defend us against godless Communism!

Now the door was ajar, and Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, pushed it open–but only in support of specific groups of children: either the poor or the disadvantaged.  His ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, is with us today (although its name has been changed several times).

1975 saw the passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, another federal law targeting a specific category of children.  This law is, I believe, the only federal legislation whose signing was not photographed!  That’s right. President Gerald Ford, a Republican, was so opposed to the law that he flat out refused to allow photographers to record his signing the bill (which had passed with veto-proof majorities in both Houses of Congress). The new law, known as PL 94-142, required schools to educate all disabled children in the ‘least restrictive environment’ but provided less than 40% of the money. This created an ‘unfunded mandate,’ which President Ford correctly predicted would unbalance local school budgets, make states resent ‘federal interference,’ and create tensions between groups.  

Jimmy Carter ran (against Ford) on a pledge to teachers and their unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, to put Education into the Presidential Cabinet, and he delivered on that promise.  The Department of Education was created in 1979, and President Carter persuaded a Federal District Court judge, Shirley Hufstedler, to leave the court and become its first Secretary.  

The Department’s own website adds this interesting tidbit: “Although the Department is a relative newcomer among Cabinet-level agencies, its origins goes back to 1867, when President Andrew Johnson signed legislation creating the first Department of Education. Its main purpose was to collect information and statistics about the nation’s schools. However, due to concern that the Department would exercise too much control over local schools, the new Department was demoted to an Office of Education in 1868.”  

Just as a Democrat created the federal Department, Democrats generally spearheaded efforts to get involved in public education, but they were not making rules for all schools or all children.  Republicans did that!  

While Democrats got their noses well into the tent, a Republican President pushed over the tent completely– albeit with the help of liberal Democrats.  George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law mandated that all schools and all identifiable subgroups of students had to make ‘Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)’ or face severe sanctions, which included firing all the teachers and closing schools.  Under this sweeping law, every school district that accepted any federal education money (and all did) was accountable to Washington.

For eight years schools struggled to adapt.  Because AYP was determined by how many kids got over the test score bar in English and Math, testing and test prep became the order of the day.  Most public schools cut art, music, and other ‘non-essential’ classes. They eliminated programs for gifted children, because they got over the bar easily; at the same time schools paid minimal attention to kids who were really struggling, reasoning that no amount of help would get them over the bar–so why bother at all!  Some schools eliminated physical education and recess.  

And because of the pressure to raise test scores, quite a few schools and teachers cheated, big time, with Atlanta and Washington, DC under Michelle Rhee being the poster children!  

For many, the lesson of NCLB was clear: Washington couldn’t and shouldn’t run public education! But, unfortunately, the incoming Obama Administration came to the opposite conclusion. It doubled down by creating what Education Secretary Arne Duncan called “The Race to the Top.”  

Moreover, because of ‘The Great Recession’ and the subsequent Congressional bailout, Secretary Duncan found himself with a huge pot of money, $100 billion, with virtually no strings attached. The 9th U.S. Secretary of Education had far more ‘free money’ than his eight predecessors combined!

Desperate for money, all 50 states and 14,000 school districts were willing to do whatever Secretary Duncan wanted.  He had a tabula rasa. He might have decided to reward those who embraced more art, music, and science; or  project-based and inquiry-based learning, or career and vocational education.  Because his mother was a prominent early childhood educator and because he himself worked in her center, reasonable people expected him to reward districts and states that embraced early learning and all-day kindergarten.

He did none of these things.  He established what he called “Four Pillars,” two of which led to more testing and the evaluation of teachers based almost entirely on student test scores.  Another “Pillar” led directly to the expansion of the Charter School movement, despite a paucity of evidence that Charter Schools produced better results than traditional public schools. 

(One “Pillar”–the demand for coherent data systems–made sense to most observers, because states and districts used wildly different ways of counting graduation rates, dropout rates and just about everything else, making comparisons almost impossible.)

Perhaps because Secretary Duncan was an outstanding college basketball player, he made “Race to the Top”  an open competition.  Whoever wanted the money had to compete for it: write an elaborate proposal and then come to Washington to defend it. Money would be parceled out in competitive rounds, with lots of fanfare.  In an interview for The NewsHour, he told me that whoever wanted the money had to do what he said.

Duncan ruled for nearly eight years (giving way to John King in the waning months of the Obama Administration), but the backlash in Congress was severe.  “Who does Duncan think he is? “The Nation’s School Superintendent?” And so when it was time to reauthorize the original ESEA, now known as No Child Left Behind, Congress clamped down on Duncan and his successors. The Every Child Succeeds Act specifically restricts the authority of the Secretary over public schools.

But for all his misguided priorities, Arne Duncan was a believer in, and supporter of, public schools.  What would happen if someone who was downright hostile to schools became Secretary of Education?

Enter Betsy DeVos, a born-again Christian with an unmatched zeal for private religious education.  The 11th U.S. Secretary of Education went about dismantling the Department, rescinding Obama-era orders and declining to enforce rules protecting disadvantaged students, those who were being discriminated against, and victims of sexual assault. With student debt ballooning, particularly among students at for-profit colleges, the Secretary opted to put the proverbial fox in the henhouse: She chose a top executive from a for-profit chain to run that division. On her way out, DeVos urged her Department’s career staff how to approach the incoming Biden Administration, “Be the resistance.”

DeVos is gone, replaced by a 46-year-old career educator with deep roots in public schools, Dr.Miguel Cardona.  

So do we need a United States Department of Education?  And if we do, what should its mission be?  And what should it NOT be doing?

If it were up to me, I would get the Department out of the business of evaluating schools and school districts.  No Child Left Behind and its successors have been a disaster. Evaluation of students should be up to school districts, and judgements about school districts should be left to their states. None of that is Washington’s business…and it’s certainly not Washington’s area of expertise.

We have a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The so-called “Nation’s Report Card” samples judiciously and reports the results by grade levels and in subject areas….and that’s enough.

However, we do need a strong Department of Education to protect the civil rights of students, with particular focus on those who have historically been shortchanged.  The Department should be in the business of leveling the playing field with dollars, persuasion, and litigation when necessary. And it should also return to its oldest federal function–good statistics–because there is a dearth of basic information. It should also assume a modern function–reliable professional research. Research matters because state and local education authorities do very little, and private research funding is limited and often strongly politicized.  (The latter suggestion comes from the invaluable Gary Orfield.)

Finally, the Secretary of Education must use his or her Bully Pulpit to remind Americans that a strong public education system and a well-educated citizenry are essential to our nation’s survival.

I believe that President Eisenhower got it right: Education is National Defense. And President Carter also got it right: Education deserves a seat at the table.

What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Do We Really Need a Department of Education?

  1. ESSA was a step forward, assessment by growth and proficiency, transparency of data, and grapples with equity .. LBGTQ/transgender/ TitleIX rights, is challenging. Can feds tell Gov Abbot and cronies his transgender laws are unconstitutional? Unless transgender laws are rescinded no Title 1? Maybe we should devolve
    In an EU, 50 separate nations.


    • Perhaps, but I think it’s too little, too late. The federal government is too heavy-handed and inefficient to run schools, which is what they tried to do with NCLB, Race to the Top, and successors. Leave that to states, tend to equity, and support creating a well-educated populace that can vote.


      • One area where the Federal government could be MORE involved in schools is via JROTC and JNROTC. DOD schools have a good record compared to other public schools. Military schools have an ethos that helps motivate and discipline young students who might not do well in a more permissive enviornment.

        I taught for over 30 years and visited schools in Washington State, California, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia. I taught home school students, private students and I taught in Catholic schools as well as public schools. I was an advisor and supporter of JROTC and JNROTC for over 25 years. Without complensation I tutored JNROTC students and supported their fundraisers and events. I invited Marine and Navy recruiters to speak to my students every year and share materials.

        American schools ARE, generally speaking, mediocre to poor. Standards have fallen and continue to fall. Many students do not even feel safe and secure in their bathrooms.

        Most schools have no clear policies on use of smart phones in classrooms. I was not allowed to take phones away from students. I observed students using smartphones to cheat to take pictures of tests. All I could do was warn the student and document what I saw. I am sure I did not catch everything the students did with phones and cameras.

        Every teacher knows, of course, that anything she does or says can be filmed and recorded and posted on YOUTUBE.

        I found this out some years ago when I had to break up a fight between two students (one Sikh and the other Arab) when student put a full nelson on the other. I believed this could have resulted in serious injury (even death). This was a brawl. They were knocking over furniture and breaking things in class. I called security (they took over 7 minutes to arrive in the class). I was injured myself when a falling desk hit my shin.. Fortunately other students help separate the two. Later students were talking to me about the event. They had seen it posted on youtube.

        The students were not disciplined in any serious way or removed from class (something that would have been impossible even ten or fifteen years ago).

        I was not allowed to touch students caps (even if they were covering cheat sheets during a test). I would ask students to clear their desks for a test or quiz and if they refused I would not administer a test.

        It became almost impossible to remove a student from class due to tardiness or disruption. Students in PE (now coed) mostly just sit around and do nothing.

        Teachers are not allowed (in California) to raise money for activities or AP classes via choclolate sales. I established AP classes in my school and we had 75-100 students a year passing AP classes in Calculus, AP US History, AP Spanish and AP Spanish Literature. We paid for all the tests and additinal materials via chocolate sales. That is not allowed anymore and unless other ways are found to fund AP classes and unless altruistic teachers (for no additional compensation are found) then AP classes begin to run down. If students can’t and no longer take AP tests then the class over time becomes an AP class in name only.

        ZOOM classes were, generally speaking disastrous. A few self motivated students did reasonably well (but had much less oportunity to speak and interact with other students). Many students simply switched off. I heard second hand fro adult aides and comments from classmates tha many students spent most of the classtime playing video games or watching youtube, TICTOK, instratgram etc.

        In my final year and a half teaching I never had so many students with ZERO POINTS. For an entire semester. I repeat ZERO POINTS. Not a single sentence submitted. Not a single vocabulary quiz or vocabulary project. Not a single paragraph or esssay. Not single (multiple choice and fill in) test submitted. Students were allowed to retake tests and redo essays.

        With Zoom online classes, essentially I was only interacting on a regular basis with 5-10 students of the 30 or 35 students registered in the class. After school tutoring evaporated to zero. I used to tutor 10-15 hours a week during lunch or after school in various subject areas. Online classes should only be for MOTIVATED MATURE students not the general school population, IMHO.

        I believe the US government should establish regional ALL JROTC schools as an alternative to failing public schools.

        Unfortunately, no matter how successful JROTC programs were for poor and minority students they have been underminded and abandoned in many California schools. Why? Very simple. The legislature made all JROTIC classes ELECTIVES (they could no longer be equivalent to PE classes as they were before). When you make a class an ELECTIVE that is the kiss of death in public schools.

        But if we had DOD schools NATIONALLY (and teachers could be certified NATIONALLY) as a regional alternative (a sort of magnet school) we could create a whole new career path for teachers. Japan has a policy of putting their best teachers (paid for and transferred by the NATIONAL GOVERNMENT) to reduce educational inequality. It’s just an idea.

        But I am basically pessimistic as to the direction of American schools and colleges. There are some bright spots. There is an AP elite in some schools but the middle and bottom are worse than ever.

        (two of our children are teachers by the way; one teaches at an elite private academy -Brophy College Prep in Phoenix and they other teaches at a magnet school (k-6 Dual Immersion bilingual school).

        But the bottom line is the DOE is mostly a useless sincecure for Teacher Ed types. The teachers I knew at UVA had NO INTEREST in the classroom. They all wanted to ESCAPE Virgina public education and work for the federal government (much better pay and benefits).


  2. John,

    In a word, NO!

    And while you’re at tossing it out, throw out those useless, costly standardized tests that tell us virtually nothing.

    Spend that money on making sure virtually students can read, write and speak appropriately.

    Mathematics needs a redo, but let’s talk about that later.

    Former Teacher and later Prof,




    • Fine overview of time and goal wasted in K12 teaching and learning, Mr. Merrow. But it’s high time we stopped measuring progress with standardized nonsense that’s largely meaningless. No one wants to enter an unfair field that’s already too leveled.

      Learning is a PERSONAL performance of showing what we know, and where we continue to grow. Think of an artist’s portfolio. Each student needs their own Personal Portfolio. No standardized test can measure that. Drop the national affiliations. We’ve got 15,000 school districts and thousands more schools, filled with millions of teachers. The most important commodity is our 51 million learners.

      No one knows more about what they know and what they want to know than every single one of them. Help them find it and make it happen.


  3. John,

    This is a really good fly-over and summary of Federal involvement in the K-12 education sector. The only big event you didn’t mention was the Voc-Ed program which began around the time of WW 1, as I recall.

    I don’t know whether you know this or not but I’ve been close pals with Donna Shalala since the late 1960’s – she at the Syracuse Maxwell School and I at Stanford. We co-taught courses together at Columbia U. and have been partners and collaborators ever since, but also just pals. During her 8 years at HEW under Clinton, she and I talked a lot about how the Federal cabinet structure separated political support for children’s health and welfare issues from political support for public education.

    Anyhow, always good to hear from you – and hope to get back into NYC again soon!



  4. Christopher Cross, who worked in Washington in education for many years, sent this note taking issue with what I wrote about PL 94-142:
    “There are NO signing pictures from the 1972 Education Amendments that created Title IX, Pell grants, NIE, the secondary markets for student loans, the state supplemental higher Ed student grants, etc. It was signed on June 24,1972 by Nixon. I know since I was in the White House with Elliot Richardson on that day, and we both learned it has been signed earlier that morning. It is a longer story which I can tell you, but we are currently in Europe. I was the lead lobbyist for the administration and was both aware and involved in every step.

    BTW, I also have a mental pix in my mind of Ford signing PL 94-142 bill in the HEW auditorium in front of a sizable crowd.”

    I wrote back to say that I interviewed former President Ford about the law and he told me that he would not allow photographers into the room when he signed the bill. Perhaps he was misremembering (a phenomenon that I am increasingly familiar with, alas).


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