By Christine Cooke

Originally appeared in Salt Lake Tribune. 

This month we saw Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic tie-breaking vote to confirm perhaps the most controversial secretary of education our nation has seen. Critics of Betsy DeVos are afraid of disrupting the status quo.

We also saw Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, sign on to a bill aimed at abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. Most people see the one-sentence bill as posturing, but the idea has sparked a conversation.

Dramatic as these events are, they may signal something even more dramatic — an upcoming shift in American thinking and a desire to get the federal government out of education.

I hope so.

The U.S. Constitution does not give the federal government authority over education. And according to the 10th Amendment, that means education is left to the states. Underlying this division in authority is the commonsense reality that those closest to the individual students know best how to educate them.

Still, Americans have accepted a detrimental, ever-expanding federal role in education. Excessive federal testing mandates, overregulated teachers, incentives to adopt the infamous Common Core and the clunky 2016 Dear Colleague letter have led many to doubt the wisdom of federal involvement.

After all, who are faraway bureaucrats to tell committed parents and educators what will and won’t work for a specific child whom bureaucrats have never met? The controversy over DeVos underscores that no one — left or right — likes federal power over education when they fundamentally disagree with an administration’s policy ideas.

Getting the federal government out of education can happen in a variety of forms.

One way is to abolish the Department of Education outright. The department is young; it has only been around since 1979. From 1980-2000, part of the GOP platform was to get rid of the department. But Republican leadership let up on the issue and eventually brought about one of the biggest expansions of federal intervention in education — No Child Left Behind. Obama’s administration further expanded intervention through letters, regulations, grant competitions and NCLB waivers.

The thought of getting rid of the Department of Education brings up legitimate questions: What is to become of its $68 billion budget? What happens to low-income and special-needs students, who are prioritized in federal law? Who, if anybody, should take up the role of education policy research and development on a national scale?

Some argue that states are better equipped to meet the unique needs of their most vulnerable students and can be trusted to use their own money to create the best education for their children.

Another way to reduce the federal role in education is to return power to the states.

First, the federal government should stay away from issuing heavy-handed Dear Colleague letters to states, like the policy that was just rescinded by the Trump administration. In May 2016 the departments of Education and Justice banned existing state and local solutions for dealing with transgender bathroom use. The letter became a lightning-rod issue in states last year, highlighting how out of touch the federal government is with the students it is attempting to help.

At the very least, the federal government could give states greater flexibility in existing federal policy. For example, states should be free to allow students to use Title I funds on a variety of educational options that meet the students’ unique needs. This could include online courses, college courses and public or private options.

Right now, Congress — through the power in the Congressional Review Act — is attempting to overturn specific Every Student Succeeds Act regulations in order to rein in overbearing education policy. ESSA was intended to give states greater flexibility in policy decisions, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Americans understand that every child is unique and has specific talents, weaknesses and interests. They believe in the power of parents and good teachers to help kids meet their potential. But most pertinent, they believe we have an education problem.

This election, America voted for change and disruption. Let’s disrupt education by reducing federal power in education and letting states get back to helping kids learn.

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Christine Cooke works as a policy analyst for Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress. Christine has a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in English Teaching and graduated from Arizona State University with a law degree. Prior to joining Sutherland Institute, Christine was an English teacher at a public junior high school and a residential treatment center. As a student attorney in the Arizona State University Juvenile Advocacy Clinic, Christine represented clients in juvenile law proceedings and taught community legal education to high school students. She worked in legal and policy research with the legal counsel for the Arizona Office of the Governor, legal counsel for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the Goldwater Institute, and The Heritage Foundation. Christine has made appearances on Fox-13 News and KSL’s Sunday Edition and is regularly featured in regional publications and radio shows. She currently sits on a state committee that advises the Utah State Board of Education on specific education issues. When in her home state of Arizona, she loves to spend time with her family. She also loves music, hiking, and making cookies.

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