Education Reform Expert Recommends Shutting Down Department of Education

Published February 13, 2017

Vicki Alger, research fellow at the Independent Institute, delivered a speech at The Heartland Institute on February 1 about her new bookFailure: The Federal Misedukation of American ‘s ChildrenYou can watch her presentation here.

Alger ‘s research at the Independent Institute focuses on education reforms that provide a competitive education marketplace and increases parental control over their children ‘s education. The author of more than 40 education policy studies, Alger has advised the U.S. Department of Education on public school choice and higher education, and has also helped to advance educational reform in her home state of Arizona.

Alger ‘s research also inspired the introduction of the most school-choice bills in the history of California, five in all. Prior to her career in education policy, Alger taught college-level courses in American politics, English composition and rhetoric, and early British literature.

Overview of Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children

As is noted on the back cover of Alger’s book:

For nearly 100 years the federal government left education almost entirely in the hands of the citizenry and state and local governments, but in 1979, with the creation of the US Department of Education a sprawling bureaucracy with 153 programs, 5,000 employees, and an annual budget of approximately $70 billion, the federal government intruded itself into almost every area of education.

Accordingly, Alger reveals in her book that 1) federal involvement in education has been a failure, and 2) assesses, identifies, and articulates the best strategy for success.

Alger further explains how and why U.S. students are mediocre achievers in math, science, and other subjects when compared to many other nations – despite America’s schools being the most costly in the world. In her presentation, Alger debunked the common misconception that this nation was once a world leader in elementary and secondary education. We never ranked at the top. America can’t get back to the head of the class because we never were at the head of the class. In fact, we have always scored at, or near, the bottom of the rankings. But with effective educational reforms, the academic performance of American students could improve significantly

For those who are advocates of school choice, Alger presents strong arguments for giving more power to parents and

Evolution of Department of Education 

The original Department of Education was created in 1867 – and downsized to an office the following year – to collect
information on schools and teaching that would help the States establish effective school systems. While the agency’s name and location within the executive branch have changed over the past 130 years, this early emphasis on getting information on what works in education to teachers and education policymakers continues down 
to the present day

When debate opened in the House on June 5, 1866 about a national channel of communication among school officers of different states and the federal government, there was neither mention nor desire to utilize the federal treasury to fund any educational programs. There was no hint that the department would do anything other than collect statistics. In short, the department was to be an educational statistical service located in Washington, D.C. The department, which started out with four employees, acted as a clearing house of data for educators and policymakers. 

Democratic Rep. Samuel Moulto from Illinois had this to say about his version of a Department of Education – which has come to pass in America today, but which was never sanctioned by our Constitution:

Now, sir, in order to make education universal, what do we want? What is the crying necessity of this nation today? Why, sir, we want a head. We want a pure fountain from which a pure stream can be poured upon all the States. We want a controlling head by which the various conflicting systems in the different States can be harmonized, by which there can be uniformity, by which all mischievous errors that have crept in may be pointed out and eradicated.

Present-day Department of Education

There is no traditional or historical basis for The Department of Education. The department represents a political agenda administered from Washington DC. The department was moved here and there during its history, and went through some name changes, but in whatever form it has taken it has failed to improve education – such as in 2016, when the department spent $200 billion.

In 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter promised to create a Department of Education, and is immediately endorsed by the National Education Association. This is first time the NEA endorsed a presidential candidate in more than a century of existence.

In 1979, after much opposition, Congress narrowly passed legislation to split off a new Department of Education from the existing Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers provided powerful lobbying support for the creation of the new department. The Department of Education began operations in 1980 with 6,400 employees. When campaigning for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan calls the Department of Education “President Carter’s new bureaucratic boondoggle” and promised to abolish it – a promise, obviously, he could not keep.

The Department of Education was created to improve management and efficiency, but as Alger noted in her talk at Heartland, the department represents just one more piece of government with lots of bureaucrats. By her count, Alger said just 6 percent of Education Department programs are effective. Although the department is getting more expensive to operate, children have not been better-educated after three decades of massive funding.

The theme that ran throughout Alger’s book presentation was that it’s time to eliminate the Department of Education. As she remarked: “Education doesn’t get any better like a fine wine.”

According Alger, student achievement has been flat since the late 60s up to today. It is fair to ask how can this is so when American schools are among the most costly in the world? Yet American students experience only mediocre achievements in math and science, in contrast to students who excel in countries that spend far less per student. Alger puts some of the blame on the resistance to school choice and competition.

Concern about the achievement gap in America versus other countries in the world led to the school-reform movement of the 1980s. Improving student achievement became all-important, so reforms began exploring how the federal government count partner with the states – a tactic that went against how education policy had been viewed in the past, one driven primarily by the states.

Standard-based Education Reform explored in the 1980’s

Standard-based education reform began with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 which eventually led to Common Core.

During the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, two standards-based programs were set in motion: No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Both program failed. Nevertheless, the Obama administration was able to sneak Common Core State Standards beneath the radar of the American people by peddling the program to states, sight unseen, through the offer of money to cash-strapped states.

Ze’ev Wurman, former U.S. Department of Education official, called Common Core standards mediocre. In no way were they to be considered a proper preparation for college.

Alger ascribes the failure of Common Core to Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was plucked from Chicago, where he served as superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2009. It was Duncan’s mission to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America so this nation had only one system of learning.

‘Strategic Dismantling’ of the Department of Education
Alger’s two-step process to eliminate the Department of Education follows: 
  • Shutter up. Eliminate 19 program offices to reduce and overhaul cost. This would save $14 billion.
  • Return control of managing programs back to the states, citizens, and school districts. This would save $216 billion. (Programs remain operable from three to five years. As programs expire, discontinue them.)

As related by Alger:

Schools rely on federal funding to the amount of 10 cents on a dollar. The new mandate for Common Core required more money for schools to implement than did No Child Left Behind, yet schools were told to rip up the No Child Left Behind mandate to replace with Common Core.
Arizona, a Leader in Charter Schools

Alger was instrumental in her home state of Arizona in approving charter schools, an achievement that is now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Charters faced steep opposition in Arizona, with critics predicting doom. But the sky did not fall in Arizona because of charter schools, nor were public schools starved. Instead, Arizona has more top high schools than any other state, yet Arizona spends $5,000 less on the average than the average state. (Illinois has no top high school, other than possibly some of Chicago’s magnet schools.) Black students in Arizona, meanwhile, have made the highest math gains on the nation’s latest report card. Why should children be kept in schools that don’t work for them?

Alger supports publicly funded vouchers, and particularly Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), because every dollar follows the child. Algar said she has helped five states implement ESA programs directed by the state, not the federal government.

Q&A with Vicki Alger

Concerning Betsy DeVos? Vicki Alger believes Betsy DeVos, even though she endured a tough nomination fight, will be a strong leader for Trump. Hopefully, Alger said, DeVos will do away with the disaster of Common Core, which in the process will demolish the ESSA Act – through which parents are bullied and threatened about their child’s graduation unless the test associated with Common Core is taken.

Concerning budget of U.S. Department of Education established in 1979? Out of the $200 billion spent to operate the department, only about 10 percent is sent back to the states. That means it takes $130 billion just to administer the distribution of money back to the states, certainly a massive political boondoggle.

Mustn’t some standards exist to measure how students are progressing in subject matter, although Common Core is a failure? California, Alger said, has little else going for it, but it does have a good state testing program. There is no shortage of basic state skill tests if a parent wants to know where there kids are on basic skills, but don’t trust the state to administer the test.

Don’t parents want to know what their child knows at the beginning of a school year and at the end? Vicki Alger believes the focus should be more on parents having choices rather than testing standards.

In closing

So often the battle seems insurmountable, but those of us who are sick of top-down federal control of education on both sides of the aisle outnumber those who wish to keep the status quo.

Thirty-seven years after the modern Department of Education was established under Jimmy Carter, students are not better off. Now is the time to sever the partnership of education with the federal government by abolishing the Department of Education. Let President Trump and your legislators hear from you as a necessary component tow