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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 11/10/2010

Why the Education Dept. should be eliminated -- Wood

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of the non-profit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from around the country.

By George Wood
After the election of 2008, I thought the stars were aligning for some serious changes in the way the federal government treated public schools.

Gone were the architects of No Child Left Behind. A president who had repeatedly said we should not judge schools or children on the basis of one test was elected to office. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was up for reauthorization, and I was hopeful things would change.

I did not mind waiting while other issues took stage, because I liked most of what was going on. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, health-care reform, getting higher education student loans out of the hands of the banks, a recovery act, and much more. Schools were provided a generous slice of the recovery dollars –- not just once, but twice --- and that money kept the budget ax from falling on my school.

But reauthorization of ESEA languished, and the initiatives from the U.S. Department of Education including more money for charters, turnaround plans that seemed to focus more on punishing than supporting teachers, support for short-term teacher training, all echoed the plans of prior administrations.

Now that the reins of legislative power have again changed hands, what should we expect this time?

I am not sure. I worry that despite election-year rhetoric about the intrusion of the federal government into local school decision-making, the new bosses in Washington may be the same old boss (with apologies to The Who).

But I have an idea as to a bipartisan effort that might make everyone happy: Eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complains they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that the Department of Education was a payoff by President Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That’s where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of the national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. The federal government provides only about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live.

But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it.

In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

It might be viewed as peculiar for someone who values education to be arguing for what has often been a very conservative position. I know I will hear responses that education is a national issue and is too important to be left to states and locales.

But this has always been the argument of the “I know better than you” crowd, and it’s time we stop buying into that logic. The fact is that the federal government has demonstrated time and time again it does not know better when it comes to our schools.

I would also suggest that this smaller bureaucracy have a more limited role than in the past.

Instead of trying to tell our schools what to do, the feds should play a more circumspect role.

That role would include insuring all children have equal access to school programs, providing and disseminating high-quality research on successful schools and programs and funneling federal dollars to schools facing the most challenging conditions (the original intent of ESEA).

Of course it’s probably naïve to even suggest a bureaucracy as large as DOE go away; it’s hard to name any such organization that we have eliminated. But why not try out an idea that appeals to our current climate of more democratic localism, less federal intrusion, and more effective use of federal dollars?

It could end up being a case of addition by subtraction.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 10, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  George Wood, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  ed department, education department, eliminate the education department, george wood, guest bloggers  
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I'd rather see the elimination of local boards of education. They are by and large an entirely useless group of people that have two purposes only -- 1) rubber stamp anything their school administrators propose and 2) pay lip service to whatever political issue holds sway in their community at the moment.

We don't need "local" control of schools. When my children graduate from high school they will be competing with kids from across the globe for admission to college and/or a good job. We need high national standards so that every kid, no matter what town they live in, is prepared for the demands of the future.

Posted by: EduCrazy | November 10, 2010 6:54 AM | Report abuse

I voted for Obama and the US Department of Education must be abolished as a result of misguided policies. Based on politics, the DOE exists to create winners and losers with America’s K-12 students on the losing end.

A vision about quality education for students based on the individual’s strengths and interests does not exist in the DOE.

Without evidence or merit, the DOE pushes low quality one-size-fits-all “education” and testing scams down the throats of students, teachers and parents. At the same time the political appointees use the media and routinely attack educators and public schools. Without oversight, billions in taxpayers’ funds are funneled to for-profit charter operators, testing conglomerates, and the big-brother data collection industry.

NCLB Reading First grants must be exposed as a reminder of what will happen in Race to the Top with billions on the table for the Department’s pet for-profit projects. Follow the chain of corruption and conflicts of interests related to the “Texas Miracle” and the “Chicago Miracle.”

By abolishing the DOE, send the money to the states and local public schools with parents, educators, and taxpayers making decisions in the interest of all students at the local level.

Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | November 10, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Educrazy, I second that notion.

Posted by: hainish | November 10, 2010 7:47 AM | Report abuse


I agree fully. The DOE has certainly done more harm than good in the last ten years.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 10, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

I am a native Washingtonian. My first, and maybe only 'private-sector' job I had was delivering this very newspaper through hilly streets in SE D.C. My youth, and young adult summer jobs have been with the Federal Government (FEMA), I served my country as a soldier and now am I public school teacher. I've lived on the East Coast, the Mid-West, and now reside in California. Folks in the federal government are no more capable or innovative than the folks across the country. I know a state or local entity can create 'world-class' standards for their children especially when everyone has such easy access to knowledge and research. Abolishing the DOE isn't just 'conservative,' it's just the smart thing to do.

Posted by: pdexiii | November 10, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Quite the contrary - get rid of all variation in curriculum. There needs to be one national curriculum, period. The lack of this is insane. Go look at any western country and see if they allow individual schools to figure it out on their own. I have watched this mess unfold for the last 20 years, and I wholeheartedly support taking education responsibility away from the states and local government. Get rid of the variability and you can remove all these admin windbags with inflated titles.

Seriously folks, we need a new "October Sky" scenario.

Posted by: ShowMeTheRealMoney | November 10, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

This must be written by some other George Wood--some other Forum for Education & Democracy. The old George and the old Forum would never have given up on trying to impact federal education policy, especially civil rights policy, that easily. Go back to old states-rights approach? Hard to believe.

Posted by: MickeyK | November 10, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse


Finland certainly contradicts your position. Check it out.

I do not necessarily disagree with a national curriculum, though. It will give teachers a baseline for what is needed; new teachers could certainly use this baseline. I do worry about what Duncan and the rest of his ilk will do with it.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 10, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Showmetherealmoney -- Yes, rigid, centralized curricula have been behind the raging successes of:

the Soviet Union
North Korea

There should be a lot in common, I will agree, but that is not the way this country is wired. For example, in the South, systems will want to tell the story of the Civil War in a different way.

In Washington, DC, we would be happy if there were standardization. The earlier supt., Cliff Janey, is often credited with standardizing the curriculum, but his "achievement" is like most others claimed before M. Rhee arrived. That is why we may be shortly resuming our steady decline in public schools.

Posted by: axolotl | November 10, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

States' rights in education is why the Feds got more involved in the first place. Could it be because it was a bit like states' rights with desegregation, feet-dragging, outright obstruction and worse?
The poorer states need help - they just don't like being reminded how bad it is for them. Then there was that issue of "states' rights" called the civil war - some still arguing that one.
Be VERY careful what you ask for!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 10, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Let's not confuse the getting rid of the DOE with abandoning national curriculum.

In other words, you don't need a DOE to standarize curricula on a national level.

After all, the Common Core standards were developed by STATES, not the national government.

Generally, DOE involvement has produced more negative than positive results. I realize complete local control has problems, too, but I would rather allow states to screw up their own education system than have a DOE that ensures ALL education systems will be screwed up.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | November 10, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Better yet, just get rid of Arne Duncan. That would be a start.

Posted by: chicogal | November 11, 2010 12:38 AM | Report abuse

Remember. The current intrusive provisions of NCLB and the appropriations for RttT were acts of Congress.

ESEA over the years and NCLB over the last decade has achieved two important accomplishments One, it has raised the matter of elhi from a level of local media attention to a national level of attention. Two, it has increased the capacity of State Departments of Education to at least match if not surpass the capability of the national Department of Education.

The scope of DoE extends more broadly than general ElHi instruction. It includes higher ed, ed research, special ed, and native American ed, among others.

Further, the DoE provides important administrative and regulatory services at the National level.

On the basis of the gains that have been made, the Congress is in position to declare victory and get the hell out of the schools. Education is a state and local matter but within a Federal system of government, not a national system.

The states were dumb enough to take the bait for the Common Core standards and the Race... The election operationally ended the "Race." The Governors and Chief State School Officers own these matters. They can now be freed to govern and educate.

Posted by: DickSchutz | November 11, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Well, DoE is one, of about 6 that should be eliminated, if we are ever to have a chance of balancing the budget.

Posted by: WalterSobchak1 | November 11, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I have to come to believe that the department of education should also be abolished.

Blarney Duncan is nothing but a bully with a suit and friendly personality.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 11, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security should definitely be eliminated -- it was a payoff to the contractor set, the so-called Beltway bandits. As the Richmond newspaper wisely pointed out eight years ago, we have an agency whose purpose it is to protect the homeland: it is called Dept. of Defense.

Posted by: CesarSozei | November 13, 2010 3:21 AM | Report abuse

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