The U.S. ED, part 2
Here’s a link to part 1.
So what exactly is the US Department of Education? It doesn’t directly set or enforce policies, so it’s actually rather dissimilar to many other federal agencies. It’s much more like an advisory body, except that it also hands out money in fairly specific directions.
The largest amount of the ED’s money, from what I can tell, goes towards people who might not otherwise get an education. Students with disabilities. Students with significant financial needs. Career and technical education. Programs with names like “Ensuring Equity.”
I think it’s important to do that. I don’t know whether there needs to be a full Department for that purpose. I’m not saying that in the way that some peoples’ “I don’t know” is really a “clearly not,” I’m genuinely saying “I don’t know.” Right now President Obama is asking for the authority to combine some federal agencies in much the same way that Homeland Security was created out of the Coast Guard, TSA, FEMA, and so forth. No matter how I might dislike Homeland Security these days, the combination was a great idea. Maybe Education could get combined with Labor, Health & Human Services, the NEA and NEH into some general “quality of life” bureau.
As for the advisory part of the ED’s job, I’m clearly biased. I think that education, being most of our lives from age 5 to age 21, is an incredibly big deal, and that there should be someone in the president’s cabinet who brings those matters up. Getting rid of the Department of Education entirely, without folding it into some other group, seems like it would remove a voice for 20-25% of our life experience.
I do believe that states need more ability to work independently. The ED’s current approach encourages grants applications to be written in very specific ways, effectively creating direction without creating policy. I’d rather that they consider grant applications on the basis of potential merit rather than on the basis of alignment with current departmental goals. I’m aware of how tough it is to define “potential merit,” but education is tough in general and we shouldn’t shy away from such approaches just because they’re difficult. If we need to do more research on what “potential merit” means in education, so much the better.
More than just state-level independence, however, I think that individual schools need the opportunity to try new things. Most of the opposition to that comes from the states themselves, not from the federal government. I don’t think that getting rid of the ED would free up individual schools at all.
So that’s where I am right now regarding the Department of Education. I think it does many worthwhile things, but that we might do well to combine it with another couple agencies and focus it away from broad trends and toward individual excellence.