United States Department of Education and the Circular Firing Squad

The creation of the United States Department of Education in 1979 was a payback to the teacher unions who endorsed then candidate Jimmy Carter for President of the United States in 1976. It was passed over the objections of both Democrats and Republicans. It was supposed to save the taxpayers money. Stop me, if you have heard that one before.

It is highly unlikely the Department of Education has delivered any budget savings or a helped simplify any education programs. Now that Betsy DeVos has been named Secretary of Education, the unions have engaged in a fruitless war with DeVos. Henry David Thoreau wrote: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” In this case the problem is not Betsy DeVos. It is the federal bureaucracy itself that is the problem.

The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “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.” Can you list an irrefutable positive consequence on the academic performance of school children in the United States as a direct result of the involvement of the federal government since the creation of the United States Department of Education?

Chester Finn, a former Assistant Secretary of Education (1985-1988), believes the principal reason unions wanted a federal Department of Education was for “the political power and prestige to seek bigger budget increases for federal education programs.” If Finn is accurate (and I agree with his assessment), union efforts have become a circular firing squad for educators. The unions will continue to spend political dollars to elect pro-union candidates to maintain that political power, with little regard to helping actual educators in the field. Too often they are hindered by their blatant fondness for political correctness and support of non-educational issues.

For local teachers, administrators and school districts, the US Department has added bureaucracy and increased the amount of paperwork required. The subsequent standardizing education and standardized tests are detrimental to creativity and innovation. Schools are often regulated to death. Tennessee, a big recipient of Race to the Top funding, has resumed concentrating on our own education problems and issues. It is imperative that we re-engage parents at the local level, who were often defenseless against federal dollars in their community. Effective programs and policies must be identified at the state level and shared in similar communities and among each other here in the state.

America has progressed much since 1979, and it is time to re-envision the role the US Department of Education will play moving forward in policy. It is likely any problem or challenge facing public education is best resolved at the local or state level, not by the federal government. The federal government could take an appropriate role in gathering data to assess how well certain programs and grants are working, along with awarding Pell grants, and other federal financial aid through loans while providing guidance over state policies to prevent racial and religious discrimination.

The founders never envisioned a robust role for the federal government in education. Yet here we are. I believe in a limited federal government, including limiting the federal role in education as much as possible. What do you think?


JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. Follow him on social media via Twitter at @jcbowman.