By now, it’s likely you’ve heard the infamous 53 seconds borne to us from America’s favorite Austonian amnesiac, Rick Perry. Like a card-carrying vegetarian pitted against the choice of a T-Bone or New York Strip for survival, Perry’s “uhhh… ” moment was drawn out to the point of self-starvation.
Admittedly, the entertainment value derived from Perry’s Parkinson’s-like grasp on lists of three almost reached the proportions of a Mark Block sighting, but lost in the laughter are the implications of the little the Texas governor did remember.
What would happen if our next president eliminated the federal Department of Education (ED)?
Perry’s notions of scrapping a federal department, especially one named “education,” are capable of eliciting enough knee-jerking in Manhattan to cause a magnitude 4.7 earthquake. Yet, the idea is far from radical. The current incarnation of the department didn’t exist until 1980. And months after it began operation, Ronald Reagan campaigned and won on a platform to eliminate it. (His campaign promise was ultimately spurned by the Democrat-controlled Congress in 1982). Prominent pundits have talked about taking the buzzsaw to the ED since its inception and two of America’s foremost thinktanks — the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation — have issued positions supporting the department’s dismantlement.
There must be some good reasons for wanting to take apart the behemoth. After all, like many other bureaucratic agencies, the ED is bloated and mismanaged, consistent with the culture of waste that pervades Washington. Earlier this year, this is how the Government Accountability Office (GAO) described the department:
According to the March 2011 report, billions of dollars are being squandered on redundant programs. As our nation continues to borrow 40 cents of every dollar spent, this misuse of taxpayer funds is unacceptable.
This committee is particularly concerned about the 82 individual teacher quality programs and the 47 separate job training programs detailed in the report.
And since when do Republicans care about trees, huh? Nonetheless, chairman of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) rightly points out a sour statistic:
Currently, the paperwork burden imposed by the Department of Education is larger than that of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Justice. From 2002 to 2009, the Department of Education’s paperwork burden increased by an estimated 65 percent — an astounding number that continues to grow.
The biggest beef critics appear to have with the ED, however, is not the lack of streamlining or the fact that the cabinet department has yet to discover .pdf format. The lackluster performance it has fostered, especially in the wake of increased funding, has caused furor. President Obama’s FY2011 budget included significant increasesin ED spending (remember the “spending freeze?”). Yet, there has been little good to come from the spending surge in education that began under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. See the numbers for yourself, courtesy of Cato’s Andrew Coulson.
What do we have to show for a system that continues to adhere to a 19th century farm calendar that even farms have given up on? One that still teaches sewing in “Home Ec.?” (Mind you, making Snickerdoodles in that class was nothing short of wonderful).
Well, it ain’t pretty. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan estimated earlier this year that more than 80,000 of America’s 100,000 public schools would fail to meet NCLB requirements, as reported by The New York Times.
To be fair, casting this as simply the fruit of mettlesome teachers unions would be oversimplifying the issue. Technology costs money, and if we expect our youth in public schools to keep up in an increasingly competitive global economy, our classrooms have to reflect the changing landscape. Producing smarter kids means producing smarter teachers. Graduate degrees and salaries that reflect that investment also cost money. In this sense, increased funding certainly seems justified (but, really, 300 percent in the last decade alone?!).
The greatest proportion of ED resources go to Pell Grants and other forms of aid, which have greatly evened the playing field in postsecondary education for lower and middle-class families. But this is far from the forgiveness hour for the feds.
Subsidizing the education of the masses has the capacity to produce side effects in the form of inflated tuition and undervalued degrees. Not to mention, there are plenty of functions affiliated with the ED that could easily be delegated to the states, such as the free and reduced school lunch program.
More broadly, continuing to throw money at educational underperformance hardly seems to solve the problem with a set of shaky incentives in place. After all, when a school does well, it’s rewarded with more money on the premise that high performance will continue. When a school fails, it’s rewarded with more money on the premise that it’s underfunded and can only improve performance with more resources. All of this leaves accountability on the back burner.
It seems to me that there are two sides of the coin here, but the side favoring federal government intervention in education is losing the battle of ideas. The numbers don’t lie and it seems to me that there are certain structural inefficiencies in our education system. Transferring resources away from local and state sources to the one-size-fits-all umbrella that is the federal ED hardly seems like a recipe for ameliorating matters.
To respond to the question posed in the title, abolishing the ED would not be the end of the world, but it certainly seems as if it would reduce access to higher education for the lower and middle-class. Even if average scores are raised, is this a scenario society would like to entertain? Given the tuition hikes that I think government guaranteed loans foster, perhaps, but try selling that to voters.
While eliminating the ED outright may be misguided, the statistics support Rick Perry’s apparent frustration with the federal education apparatus, believe it or not. A practical solution has to introduce incentives that bring accountability and competition into the mix one way or another. This will require serious reform that includes taking on entrenched interests that stand to benefit from a seemingly endless surge of spending. Even Rick Perry knows this.