Excellent article adapted from a speech given by Charles Murray regarding the need for the Department of Education:
THE CASE FOR the Department of Education could rest on one or more of three legs: its constitutional appropriateness, the existence of serious problems in education that could be solved only at the federal level, and/or its track record since it came into being. Let us consider these in order.
(1) Is the Department of Education constitutional?
At the time the Constitution was written, education was not even considered a function of local government, let alone the federal government. But the shakiness of the Department of Education’s constitutionality goes beyond that. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the things over which Congress has the power to legislate. Not only does the list not include education, there is no plausible rationale for squeezing education in under the commerce clause. I’m sure the Supreme Court found a rationale, but it cannot have been plausible.
On a more philosophical level, the framers of America’s limited government had a broad allegiance to what Catholics call the principle of subsidiarity. In the secular world, the principle of subsidiarity means that local government should do only those things that individuals cannot do for themselves, state government should do only those things that local governments cannot do, and the federal government should do only those things that the individual states cannot do. Education is something that individuals acting alone and cooperatively can do, let alone something local or state governments can do.
I should be explicit about my own animus in this regard. I don’t think the Department of Education is constitutionally legitimate, let alone appropriate. I would favor abolishing it even if, on a pragmatic level, it had improved American education. But I am in a small minority on that point, so let’s move on to the pragmatic questions.
(2) Are there serious problems in education that can be solved only at the federal level?
The first major federal spending on education was triggered by the launch of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in the fall of 1957, which created a perception that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. The legislation was specifically designed to encourage more students to go into math and science, and its motivation is indicated by its title: The National Defense Education Act of 1958. But what really ensnared the federal government in education in the 1960s had its origins elsewhere—in civil rights. The Supreme Court declared segregation of the schools unconstitutional in 1954, but—notwithstanding a few highly publicized episodes such as the integration of Central High School in Little Rock and James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi—the pace of change in the next decade was glacial.
Was it necessary for the federal government to act? There is a strong argument for “yes,” especially in the case of K-12 education. Southern resistance to desegregation proved to be both stubborn and effective in the years following Brown v. Board of Education. Segregation of the schools had been declared unconstitutional, and constitutional rights were being violated on a massive scale. But the question at hand is whether we need a Department of Education now, and we have seen a typical evolution of policy. What could have been justified as a one-time, forceful effort to end violations of constitutional rights, lasting until the constitutional wrongs had been righted, was transmuted into a permanent government establishment. Subsequently, this establishment became more and more deeply involved in American education for purposes that have nothing to do with constitutional rights, but instead with a broader goal of improving education.
The reason this came about is also intimately related to the civil rights movement. Over the same years that school segregation became a national issue, the disparities between black and white educational attainment and test scores came to public attention. When the push for President Johnson’s Great Society programs began in the mid-1960s, it was inevitable that the federal government would attempt to reduce black-white disparities, and it did so in 1965 with the passage of two landmark bills—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act. The Department of Education didn’t come into being until 1980, but large-scale involvement of the federal government in education dates from 1965.
(3) So what is the federal government’s track record in education?
The most obvious way to look at the track record is the long-term trend data of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Consider, for instance, the results for the math test for students in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades from 1978 through 2004. The good news is that the scores for fourth graders showed significant improvement in both reading and math—although those gains diminished slightly as the children got older. The bad news is that the baseline year of 1978 represents the nadir of the test score decline from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Probably we are today about where we were in math achievement in the 1960s. For reading, the story is even bleaker. The small gains among fourth graders diminish by eighth grade and vanish by the twelfth grade. And once again, the baseline tests in the 1970s represent a nadir.
From 1942 through the 1990s, the state of Iowa administered a consistent and comprehensive test to all of its public school students in grade school, middle school, and high school—making it, to my knowledge, the only state in the union to have good longitudinal data that go back that far. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills offers not a sample, but an entire state population of students. What can we learn from a single state? Not much, if we are mainly interested in the education of minorities—Iowa from 1942 through 1970 was 97 percent white, and even in the 2010 census was 91 percent white. But, paradoxically, that racial homogeneity is also an advantage, because it sidesteps all the complications associated with changing ethnic populations.
Since retention through high school has changed greatly over the last 70 years, I will consider here only the data for ninth graders. What the data show is that when the federal government decided to get involved on a large scale in K-12 education in 1965, Iowa’s education had been improving substantially since the first test was administered in 1942. There is reason to think that the same thing had been happening throughout the country. As I documented in my book, Real Education, collateral data from other sources are not as detailed, nor do they go back to the 1940s, but they tell a consistent story. American education had been improving since World War II. Then, when the federal government began to get involved, it got worse.
There is absolutely no need for the federal government to be involved in education anymore. This should be left up to the states. But ever since the unions became heavily involved in teaching we have seen ever increasing educational disasters. How could it not be a disaster when the education system is separated between unions who are only interested in their own needs and students/parents who want a better education for children.
And now we have fallen behind most of the world in almost all areas of education. The only successes? Privately run schools. One example is Illinois. 9 of the 10 best schools for graduation rates in that state are charter schools.
In 2010, the South Carolina Department of Education privatized four schools that were 98% black in enrollment. In the space of one year, math scores on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standardized test (PASS) increased on average by 11%.
But woe to anyone who attempts to bring choice into education, or attempts to reform their State’s education system. Just look at Wisconsin and the recall effort underway by the unions against a democratically elected Governor who dared to go up against them.
Charles Murray also brought up post-secondary education:
…The bachelor of arts degree as it has evolved over the last half-century has become the work of the devil. It is now a substantively meaningless piece of paper—genuinely meaningless, if you don’t know where the degree was obtained and what courses were taken. It is expensive, too, as documented by the College Board: Public four-year colleges average about $7,000 per year in tuition, not including transportation, housing, and food. Tuition at the average private four-year college is more than $27,000 per year. And yet the B.A. has become the minimum requirement for getting a job interview for millions of jobs, a cost-free way for employers to screen for a certain amount of IQ and perseverance. Employers seldom even bother to check grades or courses, being able to tell enough about a graduate just by knowing the institution that he or she got into as an 18-year-old.
So what happens when a paper credential is essential for securing a job interview, but that credential can be obtained by taking the easiest courses and doing the minimum amount of work? The result is hundreds of thousands of college students who go to college not to get an education, but to get a piece of paper. When the dean of one East Coast college is asked how many students are in his institution, he likes to answer, “Oh, maybe six or seven.” The situation at his college is not unusual. The degradation of American college education is not a matter of a few parents horrified at stories of silly courses, trivial study requirements, and campus binge drinking. It has been documented in detail, affects a large proportion of the students in colleges, and is a disgrace.
The Department of Education, with decades of student loans and scholarships for university education, has not just been complicit in this evolution of the B.A. It has been its enabler. The size of these programs is immense. In 2010, the federal government issued new loans totaling $125 billion. It handed out more than eight million Pell Grants totaling more than $32 billion dollars. Absent this level of intervention, the last three decades would have seen a much healthier evolution of post-secondary education that focused on concrete job credentials and courses of studies not constricted by the traditional model of the four-year residential college. The absence of this artificial subsidy would also have let market forces hold down costs. Defenders of the Department of Education can unquestionably make the case that its policies have increased the number of people going to four-year residential colleges. But I view that as part of the Department of Education’s indictment, not its defense.
In short, the Department of Education, while maybe needed to help in desegregation is no longer needed, has made education worsen, and it is not Constitutional.
Watch these two short videos of Juan Williams and Michael Medved being interviewed by Warner Todd Huston on the state of our schools and the Department of Education: