The structure of the USDOE as of 2013 and now with 5,000 employees.


Two of our constitutional amendments played an important role in public education. In 1791, the 10th Amendment stated, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  Public education was not mentioned as one of those federal powers, and so historically has been delegated to the local and state governments.

The League of Women Voters: Role Of Federal Government In Public Education: Historical Perspectives

Let’s restructure the US Department of Education so we don’t have another DeVos or Duncan.

Donald Trump Holds Weekend Meetings In Bedminster, NJ
Betsy DeVos with Donald Trump.

For the last decade, educators and parents have been in a reactive mode in terms of federal policies on education starting with No Child Left Behind, then Race to the Top, charter schools, vouchers and now the selection of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education.

Looking at the last eight years while following public education closely, I have continuously been in a reactive mode, constantly writing about what shouldn’t be rather than what should be.

It’s time to turn the tables and look at where we are now, how we got here and a better way forward and I suggest starting at the top with the US Department of Education (USDOE).

Over the years there has developed a disconnect between what teachers are doing and achieving in the classrooms and what a President with a politically appointed Secretary of Education has in mind for those teachers and their students. It has become a top-down approach to education with little to no public participation and loss of local control over the priorities of the community and how money is spent.

The USDOE has become less responsive to the needs of students, teachers and parents year after year.

In the last few decades, the USDOE has created a constant state of flux in our public schools, based on the whims of politicians and guided by big money with the tacit or explicit approval of the President in office.

duncan-broad (1)
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with Eli Broad at Obama’s first Inaugural Ball.

For example, billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad, influenced federal policy that affected teachers and students around the country in every district and township. Neither have credentials in education or child development, have not taught in a public school and have no direct knowledge of what’s happening in classrooms or neighborhoods around the country, and yet they determined education policy for millions of students. The revolving door of employees between the Gates Foundation and the Department of Education has been well-documented and the Broad Prize trophy is displayed in the offices of the USDOE.

How did we get to the point where education has become top-down, starting with the President of the United States appointing a cabinet level Secretary of Education – in clear violation of the 10th Amendment? Many of the past appointees have not been educators. Shirley Ann Mount Hufstedler, the first Secretary of Education, was a lawyer and judge, while William Bennett, Lamar Alexander and Richard Riley were politicians, and Arne Duncan, a basketball player who, through personal connections, found his way to being CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

And, has the U.S. Department of Education gotten too big to be accountable? If so, how can it be streamlined? What should its role be? Where is the accountability in terms of its policies’ successes or failures? And finally, what has the cost been to enforce Federal policies on a state and district-wide basis such as the required and costly technology upgrades of school districts and the computerization of classrooms to provide access to the Common Core Standards’ required testing?

These are the questions I began to ask after chronicling the many failings of former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with his push for the Common Core Standards, high-stakes testing, merit pay based on students’ test scores, Race to the Top, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Waiver, the privatization of public schools by way of charter schools and the weakening of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Duncan’s final “accomplishment” was the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that places greater pressure to adhere to Federal “guidelines” with the threat of withholding Federal funding, a push to increase the number of charter schools in the country and promotion of “personalized” or “blended” learning in which you have a student interact with a computer, rather than a human instructor, for the greater part of their class time.

And let’s not forget the millions of dollars in grants that the USDOE provided to Teach for America and to aid in the proliferation of charter schools.

“Personalized learning” and the Common Core State Standards provides an inexpensive way to provide an “education” to students. This is particularly useful for charter school owners wanting to keep their operating costs and staff budgets to a minimum. It’s also being seen as a path to digital edu-bucks, “Edublocks”, and digital badges creating a permanent gig economy of piecework employment.

In the last few decades, the direction of public education has gone from bad to worse, starting with former President Clinton’s propensity for privatization of public schools in the 1990s by way of charter schools and a desire to establish national standards which is unconstitutional, George W. Bush’s unrealistic No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy which required 90% of high school students graduate on time by 2015, (The date was moved to 2020 by Arne Duncan) and the rewrite of it by President Obama’s administration titled Every Child Achieves Act (ESEA), and Race to the Top legislation.

Now with a new President and Secretary of Education along with a rearranged Congress, no one knows which way the wind will blow for us or our students. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be like this.

When do we begin to take back public school education on a local level and have it reflect the goal of creating well-educated responsible citizens with the capacity for thoughtful, critical and creative thinking and discourse? An informed citizenry that is necessary to support a strong democracy? When will we have a curriculum created by educators who have an understanding of child development and the requirements of a diverse population? Do we need the behemoth of a bureaucracy that has become the USDOE passing down to us the latest edicts for us to faithfully adhere to?

Let’s take a look at the evolution of the US Department of Education. It’s time to determine if we should go back to its original intent with modifications to address our growing and diverse population or leave it as it is now which doesn’t seem to be working for anyone but the 1%.

The state constitutions of Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the early 1780’s, set up systems of public education that reflected the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Horace Mann who understood the importance of an educated citizenry to grow a fledgling democracy.

Money was raised through taxes for public schools along with the buying, selling or renting of public land and Congress granted land in the public domain as endowments. The federal government also granted surplus money to states for public education.

In 1867, the Office of Education this minor bureau was established within the Department of the Interior. Seventy-two years later, the bureau was transferred to the Federal Security Agency, where it was renamed the Office of Education. Then in 1953, the Federal Security Agency was upgraded to cabinet-level status as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

President Carter advocated for creating a cabinet-level position for the Department of Education and in 1980, a bill to create the Department of Education was approved by Congress. The primary functions of the Department of Education were to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on US schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights” and “to increase the accountability of Federal education programs to the President, the Congress and the public.”

Since the approval of a Department of Education to be run by a political appointee, that arm of government has grown into a bureaucratic behemoth retaining approximately 4,000 employees in 32 different divisions with a budget of $70.7 billion in 2016. Imagine what each state could do with their piece of $70B in one year. Which leads to the question of where is this money going? No one sees it in our schools, some which are in poor repair and unsafe. Nurses, librarians and counselors are rare in urban school districts and teachers pay for their own supplies many times.

Even though the term “Accountability” was used ad nauseam during Arne Duncan’s era as Secretary of Education and reverberated throughout school districts across the country, no one seems to be holding the USDOE accountable for anything.

With all of the new regulations that have been passed due to ESSA and the NCLB waiver requests, the USDOE asked Congress for additional employees in 2015. The question is, were these policies necessary? How successful have these programs been? And, how much are they costing school districts and taxpayers? Where is the accountability?

A principal said to me when I raised the concern about the Common Core Standards, “Wait a few years and it will all change again”. But is this the way we want to teach our students, with changes made according to the political whims of those in power and the whimsy’s of a few billionaires?

To follow is how our students have been affected by those in power on the federal level.

The report “A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983 and promoted by William Bennett, a politician who served as Secretary of Education under President Reagan. Bennett later went on to co-found K12, Inc., a publicly traded online education company.

There is much hyperbole in “A Nation at Risk” and yet it is devoid of substantiated evidence, statistics or peer-reviewed studies but it was enough to open the gateway for privatization, first with Milton Friedman stating that school vouchers were the answer to this dire emergency, and continued with charter schools, the privatization of a public trust. This phenomenon is described in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine where she outlines how public education privatizers exploited the devastating event of Hurricane Katrina to reconstitute the New Orleans school districts entirely with charter schools (which, by most measures, has been a failed experiment).

With President George W. Bush, work began on national standards and a national assessment system, which is illegal according to ESEA, and an education reform program called Goals 2000: Educate America Act  “To improve learning and teaching by providing a national framework for education reform” and establishing “school choice” as a priority. The term “school choice” is a euphemism for vouchers and charter schools. It is the “choice” of profiteering education reformers whose goal has been to redirect public funds into private hands and replace elected oversight of school districts with appointed boards with no public accountability

President Clinton continued Goals 2000 setting up a “Goals Panel” and a Director position with staff to determine “voluntary national content standards, voluntary national student performance standards and voluntary national opportunity-to-learn standards”.

Along with Goals 2000 came AmeriCorps which funded a new organization, “Teach for America”. This multi-million-dollar enterprise hires recent college grads, no background in education required, trains them for five weeks and sends them into low income schools and charter schools for a two to three year stint to teach the most vulnerable of our children. With the influence of Bill Gates and Eli Broad, the USDOE has granted Teach for America, Inc. $100 million so far in grants, although certified teachers could be hired for these same positions.

Then former President George Bush brought us “No Child Left Behind,” which included punitive measures if schools and districts did not perform to a specified standard and the unrealistic goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2015. If schools did not meet the standard, federal funding would be diminished or cut off entirely, taking money away from schools as opposed to supporting them.

President Obama stepped up “No Child Left Behind” a notch by introducing “Race to the Top” with $5 billion to incentivize states to accept the Common Core State Standards and offered four possible options for addressing “failing” schools which was defined as the bottom 5 percent of all schools in each district based on standardized test scores. These extreme, at times draconian measures, included closing the schools, converting them into charter schools, firing half of the school staff or replacing the principal.

President Obama with Melinda Gates at Tech Boston Academy.

This policy was greatly influenced by billionaire Eli Broad, a proponent of charter schools, and Bill Gates who has spent millions of dollars promoting charter schools, merit pay and the Common Core State Standards.

What have we gained with these presidential decrees that have been influenced by politicians and their multi-billionaire backers who have their own ideas about education?

So far we have an explosion of unregulated charter schools with little regard to whether they are any better than public schools, high-stakes standardized testing, which has taken classroom and recess time away from students and substituted it with test prep, and the unproven and costly experiment known as the Common Core Standards where every student is to be on the same page as all other students around the country with no exceptions, sucking the creativity and opportunity for critical thinking out of the classrooms with little room for teachers to respond to the student’s needs and intellectual growth.

Somewhere along the way, this nation has forsaken the opportunity for parents, teachers, students and the community, to be involved in public education and instead handed over all policy decisions to politicians with no understanding of the methods, practices or the art of teaching and the processes of learning.

This was not the original intent when an arm of the federal government was established in 1780 to ensure there were public schools and teachers available to all school-aged children.

In Finland, a country that is held up as a model of providing quality education, decentralized governance in the early 1990’s. Per Finland’s Board of Education:

Education providers are responsible for practical teaching arrangements as well as the effectiveness and quality of the education provided. Local authorities also determine how much autonomy is passed on to schools. For example, budget management, acquisitions and recruitment are often the responsibility of the schools.

And while we’re on the subject of making major and much needed changes to our educational system:

Most education and training is publically funded. There are no tuition fees at any level of education. An exception are the tuition fees for non-EU and non-EEA students in higher education, effective from autumn 2016. Most higher education institutions will introduce such tuition fees in 2017, and more information can be found here. In basic education also school materials, school meals and commuting are provided free of charge.

With the majority of $70 billion going to the states, we could fund community and state colleges and provide lunch to students free of charge. I was shocked to find that my daughter had to pay for lunch in Washington State public schools. Lunch, snacks and transportation were covered when I attended public school and there is no reason it shouldn’t be covered now.

Back in the day we also had nurses, librarians taking care of well-stocked libraries, counselors to bridge the gap between school and families and then other counselors who helped us reach our goals when graduating from high school.

Much of the money that could have stayed with the districts instead has gone to every failed federal policy since No Child Left Behind.

Taking local control of schools and how federal money is spent is not a radical idea.

If we are to survive as a country, and we are in a survival mode at this time, we need to look at all of our institutions and question what has worked and what hasn’t and make the necessary changes for this country to thrive. Of the greatest importance is having an educated and informed citizenry as understood by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Horace Mann, but at this time, we have failed reaching that goal.

It’s time to look at the history of public schools and evaluate where we need to be today in terms of federal edicts. It’s time to reassess the role of the US Department of Education and whether the head of the USDOE should be a cabinet level position that is influenced by the party in power.

This is our opportunity to affect change, through conversation and debate. In four years we need to be prepared to take back the reins and have structures in place which will make for a stronger society and democracy.

Dora Taylor

Suggested reading:

  • The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools, David Berliner
  • The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein
  • The Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch
  • Role of Federal Government in Public Education:  Historical Perspectives, the League of Women Voters.
  • Got dough?: How billionaires rule our schools, Joanne Barkan for Dissent Magazine