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Hope for agency

Education department may live

The U.S. Department of Education is situated among the long list of individuals and organizations in President Donald Trump's firing line. However, in a Shakespearean twist of fate emblematic of his tumultuous presidency, history tells us that President Trump may have saved the department.

The Department of Education was created in 1979 largely from political machinations rather than clear necessity. The National Education Association, the largest union in the country, offered an endorsement for President Jimmy Carter if he formed an education department. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, more delegates hailed from the NEA than any interest group or organization, and the establishment of the Department of Education in 1979 galvanized the group for his re-election campaign.

President Reagan's 1980 campaign promise to close the newly formed Department of Education was not viewed as outrageously ideological or untenable. The Department of Education Organization Act only narrowly passed in the House and failed to win the support of a majority, and there was little public illusion to the reality that the organization was birthed from a political bargain.

Indeed, Democratic and Republican lawmakers were openly skeptical toward the department. Democrats quickly realized how easily it could be turned into a weapon of the executive branch--Reagan's appointment of Terrel Bell as Secretary of Education signaled that the department would be dispatched to oversee market-based school reforms--while Republicans remained ideologically opposed to an increased federal role in education. Bell was likely correct in a 1982 interview in which he acknowledged that the administration's goal of abolishing the department was a possible if uphill battle.

Yet, by the end of 1983, any hope of abolishing the Department of Education was dead.

That year, a commission created by Secretary Bell to investigate the causes and depth of mediocre performance among American students made waves when they published their findings in a report aptly titled "A Nation at Risk." The ominous warnings in the report created a media firestorm and genuine sense of crisis.

"A Nation at Risk" set off a wave of accountability-based reforms that culminated with No Child Left Behind in 2002. These reforms invited further centralization and only augmented the functional importance of the department vis-à-vis data collection, policy analysis, and policy enforcement, making abolition a taller task.

Perhaps equally importantly, there was a perception dating back to the New Deal that the federal government could and would intervene during times of crisis to safeguard the welfare of the republic. The solution to the problems spelled out in "A Nation at Risk" was more federal intervention, or so the thought went.

That brings us to Trump. As far as the two-thirds of the country that disapproves of the president is concerned, he infringes upon the decorum that the office demands, disregards the spirit of our Constitution, and speaks fast and loose from the most powerful pulpit in the world with little care or understanding of the consequences.

Indeed, we are mired in a crisis. At best it ends in an electoral landslide in which the sitting president might question the legitimacy of our democratic process. At worst his campaign's ties to Russia are as damning as they appear to be.

Once the dust settles the country will undergo a period of introspection, wondering how we got to this point. Many of the president's critics on both sides of the aisle will at least pay lip service to education as both the remedy and cause of the crisis.

They aren't wrong. A 2002 Gallup poll showed that a plurality of American adults with no college education described Watergate as "just politics" compared to 31 percent of adults with a postgraduate degree. Unsurprisingly, civic knowledge appears to promote stronger accountability.

How we can actually promote better civics knowledge is something that education reformers like myself grapple with constantly. In truth there are no easy answers. In the meantime, it is a good bet that public opinion will tilt toward an expansion of the department, making long odds to eliminate it even longer. History tells us so.

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Ian Kingsbury is a doctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform. The views here are his alone.

Editorial on 09/11/2017

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