No Demise for Failed, Wasteful Federal Department of Education

“I personally think the Department of Education should not exist,” former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently proclaimed. “Government has never made anything better or cheaper, more effective or more efficient. And nowhere is that more true than in education.” 

Back in 2019, a federal study found that the Department of Education does not know where the money goes, does not evaluate data well, and does nothing to solve longstanding problems. Federal agencies were not built for performance, the study found, and we should not be spending billions to get poor results.

“Given the ongoing problems with the department,” Vicki Alger argued, “in contrast to the growth of successful state-level parental choice programs, it is well worth abolishing the U.S. Department of Education once and for all.” It’s also worth considering how the Department came to exist in the first place. 

The federal Department of Education dates only from 1978 and was Jimmy Carter’s payoff to teacher unions for endorsing him in his run for president. The new department, top-heavy with bosses bagging six-figure salaries, did nothing to improve student achievement. As we also observed, the U.S. Department of Education deploys an armed enforcement division they claim fights “waste, fraud, abuse and other criminal activity.”

Under Obama, education secretary Arne Duncan, the Department became a center of activity against school choice. In Washington, D.C., the urban underclass, primarily African-Americans, must endure some of the nation’s most dysfunctional and dangerous schools. The prestigious Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama sent his own children, is out of reach. The best alternative is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program, a school choice program run by Congress.

Teacher unions and federal education bureaucrats oppose that choice program and all others. The white Harvard alum Arne Duncan captained the anti-choice team. As the Washington Post stated in a 2009 editorial, “Mr. Duncan decided—disappointingly to our mind—to rescind scholarships awarded to 216 families for this upcoming school year.”

Not content simply to oppose the school choice program, the privileged Duncan took away scholarships that had already been granted and, in effect, ejected black students from the schools they wanted to attend. The Washington Post observed that “nine out of 10 students who were shut out of the scholarship program this year are assigned to attend failing public schools.”

During her tenure, DeVos proposed cuts to federal spending, the rollback of federal guidelines, and sought to let states and local districts decide policy. For these reforms, De Vos said, “there were very few who would actually get the work done.” Most employees, she found, were oriented to their careers in the department. 

As Milton Friedman observed, new government departments are easy to start but practically impossible to abolish, whatever their degree of failure. Launched as a gift to teacher unions, the U.S. Department of Education is a monument to government waste and endures as a command center against parental choice in education.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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