It is plain to many observers that Donald Trump has placed a number of people in cabinet positions who are openly hostile to the departments they now head. That's what Trump's Rasputin, Steve Bannon, was talking about when he referred to the "deconstruction of the administrative state." Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a perfect example of a Trump nominee who would like to fundamentally alter the role of her department, and now she is getting help from Congress, where one representative has put together a bill to completely eliminate the federal role in education.
Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie has sponsored a one-sentence bill, H.R. 899, to abolish the federal Department of Education. The bill reads: "The Department of Education Shall Terminate on December 31, 2018." Massie has now gathered seven co-sponsors for his legislation. This would be the latest of a number of attempts to do away with the department, which was split off from the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare near the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency.
The latest Republican to sign on to the effort is Louisiana congressman Ralph Abraham. As a physician, you might think Abraham would have some appreciation of the importance of a federal role in education. But no, like many of his colleagues, he believes education should be left totally up to the states.
According to Trump's favorite website, Breitbart, Abraham said in a statement that the Education Department "has become more interested in protecting the interests of unions, not the students it is supposed to serve."
The anti-union rhetoric is sure to be popular with the GOP faithful, even though it's likely Abraham couldn't explain himself if asked to do so. The power of teachers' unions lies much more at the state and local level than federally.
"It’s time for that to change, and the best way to initiate that change is to return education policy decision making to where it belongs, at the state and local levels."
It's the same old song and dance from the GOP. "Local control" is the catch phrase, but it's only local control when Republicans want it to be. It wasn't too long ago that Republicans were quite happy with federal oversight of education when they included a restriction on sex education in a rewrite of the "No Child Left Behind" law.
Massie complained that the Education Department is eating up money that could be used on the state and local level for schools.
And the money that’s wasted there [the Department of Education] is not the worst part of it. The worst part of it is they control 10 percent of education funding, but – through that 10 percent of education funding – they control the curriculum and what and how our teachers are teaching.
It's not clear what exactly he is talking about in that statement. The money to run the Education Department comes out of federal tax dollars. Abolishing the entire agency would not automatically put a single dime of extra money in state education coffers.
Massie's comment also hints at another Republican bogeyman, "Common Core" standards, when he mentions "controlling the curriculum." The federal government has zero, let me repeat ZERO role in public school curriculum development and implementation. And that dreaded Common Core that Republicans are convinced is a sinister Obama plot to destroy students, families, mom, and apple pie? It's not a federal program. Education Week explained in 2015 that Common Core originated with governors and chief school officers at the state level. Yes, the federal government eventually got involved, but the push for common standards came from states, not the Education Department.
So what exactly is the real reason Thomas Massie and Republicans want to abolish the Department of Education? You get a hint when you learn what the department actually does.
The Department of Education oversees Title IX, the law that forbids sex discrimination in schools. Many people think Title IX is focused on sports, because that seems to be where a good deal of the news stories about it have been centered over the years. But it was Title IX that President Obama cited when he extended protections for transgender students last year.
The Education Department also administers other programs related to the civil rights of students and their parents, such as IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And of course it is responsible for overseeing the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), the country's main education law. Part of that law, Title I, provides extra funds to schools that serve a high percentage of students from low income families. And we know what Republicans think about the poor.
Everything that Massie claims as reasons for his desire to abolish the federal role in education falls apart under scrutiny. What appears to be really going on here is a move to allow local school boards and state education departments to bring back sexual discrimination, refuse to educate handicapped students, ignore economically disadvantaged students, and resegregate schools, all in the name of "local control." (We have seen Republicans in Kentucky move toward resegregation in just the last few weeks.)
The Department of Education isn't perfect, and teachers as well as other school officials complain about it from time to time. But it plays an important role as an overseer of fairness and equality in our decentralized public schools. Which is exactly why Republicans hate it.
The author holds an M.Ed. degree and is a veteran of 29.5 years as a public school teacher.