Hey, Dept. of Education–Why do you exist?

If nothing else, the DoEd had a good graphic designer. 

One of my intelligent friends, always keen political observer, recently asked me a school-related question for which I had no immediate answer: Why do we have a federal Department of Education, when there is absolutely no mention of it in our constitution?

After all, except for the notable exception of about 100 years of “separate but equal” public schooling (an abomination that moved people to establish the Department as a cabinet-level entity in the 70s), states have done a more-or-less effective job with public education. So why do we need almost 50 billion discretionary dollars going though the Dept. of Ed (DoEd) each year?

Since a teacher’s work is always extremely local,  focused on the next period duties, the next group of young citizens’ needs, the next unit of curriculum, it is easy to ignore state policies underlying his/her practice, much less the federal ones. You do what your immediate boss and your students demand–“Teach this skill,” “Implement these standards,” “Meet the students’ needs.” Whatever the US Dept. of Education does can be the furthest thing from a teacher’s mind.

And yet I believe it behooves the public school teacher to understand the larger context of his/her work, to ask whether the underlying assumptions or implementation of federal education policy make sense.  If nothing else, finding an answers to fundamental questions allows the teacher to intelligently address questions of policy that occur locally, in his/her school building, where his/her opinion might matter. And in the community, as a citizen, it behooves the American public school teacher to understand where so much tax revenue is going, and especially in our Great Recession, to decide whether it could not be spent in the cause of educating our youth.

Elevated to the executive branch in 1979 by Jimmy Carter, the DoEd was originally charged with doing what is still on its mission statement: “Enforc[ing] federal laws prohibiting discrimination.” Back in 1976, the USA still had plenty of segregated schools that needed a federal kick in the rear (Boston bus riots, anyone?). It’s easy to see that, yes, when states or local municipalities violate citizens’ civil rights to a free public education, the feds should step in to ensure justice. The Little Rock 9 comes to mind (and there the feds intervened without a cabinet-level post). But the segregation dragon (the racial one, not the economic one) has pretty much been slain.

So lacking a monster to slay, why is there a DoEd?  And has it not even become somewhat monstrous itself, orchestrating and policing NCLB and RTTT, which amount to killing flies with a baseball bat?

Over the next month or so, I will examine the “raison d’etre” for Arne Duncan’s domain on the wikiness. In the process, I expect to uncover some history, examine some premises, and reach some conclusions (if only tentative) about why it is in the first place.  Stay tuned.

copyright-free images sources from wikimedia

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