Rothbard once famously quipped:
“It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.”
This week, one could easily replace economics with the actual tasks and functioning of the department of education. The loudest opposition to Thomas Massie’s bill to eliminate the department entirely seems to be directly correlated with how little one understands what the department even is. I’ve seen opponents of abolishment claim that ED does everything from establishing schools, to directly determining curriculum, to choosing textbooks, to even hiring or firing teachers or administrators directly. I’ve even seen them say that eliminating the department would “privatize” schools and do away with public schools completely. These opponents are apparently either unaware that google exists, or feel they don’t even need to check and see what they are so outraged about.
So what does it do? Well, although this may be an oversimplification, it’s a lot more truthful than anything in the previous paragraph: ED takes money from the states, loses a chunk of it within Washington bureaucracy, then offers what’s left back to the states after attaching strings, rules, and regulations that discourage innovation or reform that could benefit students. That’s essentially ED in a nutshell. It is state and local governments who are the ones actually tasked with providing education.
Officially, the primary functions of ED are 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.” There’s a few holes in every portion of that.
1. By “federal assistance”, what’s really meant is money. As I explained in the short version, this is money that’s taken from the states, given to ED, and then offered back at a lower amount than what went in. If the term “federal assistance” applies truthfully at all, it’s not to “education”… it’s that states are simply subsidizing bureaucracy in order to get a portion of their own money back. It can’t quite be called an investment, because ED has provably provided no educational value. The department began in 1980, and there has been no noticeable improvement in test scores tracking math, science, reading, or any other subject, and this lack of progress is across the board in every available, testable metric. Nobody is claiming children are better prepared for college or life than they were when the department began, and the only thing which has really changed is the cost. Federal funding for education has increased over three hundred percent, adjusted for inflation, in this time frame, and over a hundred percent increase per-student … for nothing. As such, there is no “federal assistance for education” provided by the department of education.
2. “Collecting data on U.S. schools”– Every state in the union already does that, without exception. The only “advantage” of the federal government collecting such data is if it first mandates standardized testing, which requires a shared curriculum to accommodate it… and this is simply not in ED’s mandate. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top attempted to accomplish this expansion of the fed’s role, and we’ve seen the result of both, and should all agree both were mistakes.
3. Enforcing “federal education laws”. The third and final listed “primary function” of ED, is actually a function of the DOJ. Laws are not the same thing as regulations, and require an act of congress. Violations of federal law are prosecuted by the department of justice. There is no rational argument that can list a benefit of duplication for this task in a separate federal agency.
These are the “primary” functions of the agency. Are there secondary functions? Sure… we are talking about bureaucracy. But if all that’s left that one can rationalize in a federal department is secondary functions, then the remaining common sense conclusion is that the secondary functions which are defend-able should be rolled over into the purview of another agency.
Abolishing the department, at the end of the day, would not “privatize” schools or do away with public education. ED does not employ teachers for teaching, establish schools, determine curriculum or textbooks directly for any district, nor should it. It should do… nothing at all… but it does not do the vast majority of things the average American seems to think it does, including the ones outraged that anyone would have the audacity to suggest abolishing a department who’s functions they don’t even understand.