School Quality

After 40 Years, There Is Still Time for the U.S. Department of Education to Become a Good Idea

Wherever you exist on the political spectrum, the U.S. Department of Education’s work has never been more relevant to the lives of families and students, and the department has continuously made notable progress over the past few years.

Said nobody. Ever.

In fact, as the Department of Education celebrates its 40th birthday (President Jimmy Carter signed the department into law on October 17, 1979), I would wager dollars against donuts that few Americans are clear on what the 4,400 employees of this $68 billion department actually do for the nation. 

What it should do, in my opinion, is to provide the public with savagely simple, smartly displayed and impregnably trustworthy information that makes families, activists, policymakers and voters smarter about answering the most burning question facing any civilization: “How are the children?”

That’s a dream. We can get there, but, for now, it seems the Department of Education spends most of its time being mired in controversy. Even the fact that it exists in the first place is controversial.

As far back as I can remember, killing the Department of Education has been a favorite idea of conservatives arguing it serves as an unconstitutional intrusion into the affairs of states. Just two years after its birth, the legendary New York Times education editor Fred Hechinger predicted its demise, saying it had “been in death row ever since Ronald Reagan became president.”

The discord wasn’t just along partisan lines though. Educators were split, too. The National Education Association supported the department’s creation—in fact, President Carter signed it into existence as a promise kept to them. But, the other national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), wanted to keep it in its former home, in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Now, after President Bush’s No Child Left Behind years, followed by President Obama’s Race to the Top years, we’ve landed in a reform malaise that leaves states and education advocates too intervention-weary to see the department as much more than a thing to be subdued. Today the department is known only for its lightning rod at the top, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is so hated on the left that it’s actually been a gift to teachers unions, who would rather have the public focus on the Secretary than the uneven results coming out of classrooms.

Is controversy, then, embedded in the mission of the department? Let’s see. Here are the four areas their website says they focus on:

  • Establishing policies on federal financial aid for education, and distributing as well as monitoring those funds.
  • Collecting data on America's schools and disseminating research.
  • Focusing national attention on key educational issues.
  • Prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal access to education.

Offer guidance on civil rights? Controversy. Focus the public on key educational issues? Controversy. Incentivize states to adopt “best practices”? Minefield.

It’s that second bullet, collecting and disseminating data, where I see real potential for the department to actually do something useful. This is what you might call the “minimum viable product” that serves the public and educators, and that could most successfully avoid controversy so that some actual benefit could be derived. 

And I’m increasingly aware that this data liberation is a service that is desperately needed. Our communities are not nearly as informed as we should be about public schooling, and those we should be able to trust most—our leaders in the education bureaucracy—exploit the gaps in our knowledge by practicing a pattern of obscuring rather than revealing vital information.

In Los Angeles, for instance, a new union-backed school board member made a beeline to sabotaging the district’s plan to launch a system that would educate families about how well their schools are doing. She said offering the public this information would “stigmatize” schools. 

In various other cities, established forces (either districts, unions, charters or some combination of the three) fight common enrollment systems that allow parents to see all the schooling options in their city through one, easily navigable portal.

My state’s education commissioner (who also happens to have been Randi Weingarten's number two at the AFT), has obscured proficiency data and confused the public with a less-than-honest portrayal of student achievement that makes it harder for us to understand how well our public school students are doing.

There is a battle for transparency here that we need to pay attention to as parents and concerned taxpayers. The national education bureaucracy—which includes school boards, superintendents, school board associations and teachers unions—have coalesced on one very effective strategy to push back on the public's demand for better schools. That strategy has been to fight the systems that provide information to the public, to attack the instruments used to assess and measure school performance, and to use political power to prevent parents from knowing their options outside of their educational establishment.

When the public educators who are supposed to be guardians of our trust and supposed to make the public smarter scheme politically to block us from accessing information or options we need to understand the education system, we need a higher ally. 

That could be the department. 

When the private associations representing public employees use their collective power to overwhelm the democratic process, to elect only public officials who will prioritize their concerns over the concerns of the public, we need a bigger friend.

That could be the department.

When moneyed interests seek to hijack school choice policies by funneling public dollars to private institutions who are not held to any standard of transparency or accountability with regard to academic results, we need a public auditor.

That could be the department.

As a way to make education politics fair for all, we need a trustworthy, apolitical source of common data that makes it easy to see how every school, district and teacher in America is doing.

If we want peace in education, we’ll have to win the information war. Only then can we fully answer how our children are doing.

Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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