Keeping a campaign promise, President Trump signed an executive order yesterday directing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to review federal overreach into state and local management of K-12 education. On the campaign trail, Trump had promised to try to pull Washington back and restore authority to states and communities.
This is good news for education for several reasons. Washington’s involvement in education creates a redundant layer of control and expense without adding value to teaching or learning in the classroom. Congress isn’t and shouldn’t be a 535 member national school board governing from the East Coast. An institution laboring under the dysfunctional leadership of partisans like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, should stick to trying to clean up the federal government’s act, not sticking their noses into local classrooms.
Similarly, the United States Department of Education isn’t and shouldn’t be a super national District Administration pulling strings across the country. But that’s close to the reality of the the federal impact. Compliance with rules, regulations, red tape, and passing whims of national figures (Michelle Obama’s misguided lunch crusade comes to mind) creates huge administrative burden and expense for school districts. A lot of district professional and legal staff is driven by the need to track, understand, and comply with federal statutes, regulations, and “guidance letters.”
It would be one thing if the national burden improved classroom results. But, there’s no evidence this is the case. The Department did not even exist until October of 1979, and was birthed by Jimmy Carter as a reward to the national teachers union for endorsing his run for president. Since then, student achievement and test scores have not improved, but have continued to languish in mediocrity relative to other advanced nations.
A serious problem in addressing the unhelpful behemoth is that interest groups, particularly union interests, treat criticism of the federal role as if it were criticism of the concept of education, as if pulling Washington’s paws back were the same thing as razing the local school house. When interest group power grabs meet political grandstanding and fearfulness, good policy suffers.
American communities elect local school boards and state legislatures. These institutions have all the authority and resources necessary to administer a quality education system, and did a good job for most of America’s history. Transferring more power and money to DC has not improved education. The former bodies are closer to, more representative of, and more accessible to the families they serve than the remote federal government. Trump’s directive to DeVos to figure out how to restore more authority to states and communities is a healthy step. It doesn’t actually grant her any additional power as she already has authority to administer and change Department priorities and actions. It does, though, give direction and stature to her task and demonstrate that she has the president’s support in her efforts.