Why We Need a Department of Education

Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher and education advocate.

Let’s say you have a starving child.

You take out a knife, a fork and a spoon. You hand her a cup.

This isn’t what she needs.

She needs food. She needs water.

But the utensils seem a precursor to meeting those needs.

That’s what the Department of Education has always been – a tool and a promise.

But now the Trump administration wants to do away with even that polite fiction.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the plan to merge the Education and Labor departments.

The reason you may not have heard much about it – beside the fact that bigger stories have overshadowed it like the forced separation of undocumented children and parents at the border, coercing kids into immigration court without parents or even legal counsel and then locking them up in cages in detention centers – is that the plan has about zero chance of coming to fruition.

Democrats oppose it and there don’t even seem to be enough Republicans in favor to get it through Congress. It may not even have enough support to get a vote.

Unless it’s a huge tax cut for the rich, no one seems able to get any actual laws through this GOP controlled legislature.

Moreover, the proposal is a definite step backward. The Department of Education was created in 1980 by splitting the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

At that time, its purpose was clear. It was a tool to increase funding equity and transparency while protecting students.

After all, the department was an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which tried to bring equity to America’s public schools.

As President Jimmy Carter said upon signing the bill into law:

“First, [the Department of Education] will increase the Nation’s attention to education. Instead of being buried in a $200 billion-a-year bureaucracy, educational issues will receive the top-level priority they deserve. For the first time, there will be a Cabinet-level leader in education, someone with the status and the resources to stir national discussion of critical education concerns.”

Unfortunately, those principles were never fully realized.

The Department did increase funding to public schools, but it didn’t end up dramatically increasing opportunities for the underprivileged.

Sure, it provided targeted grants like Pell Grants that did offer opportunities to select groups of students. But it didn’t radically alter our outdated (even then) funding system.

Our schools are segregated by race and class – worse now than they were then. Since they’re funded primarily by local property taxes, that means the poor and minorities get less funding than richer whiter kids.

And unless you’re willing to let your kids go to a school that receives less funding than others, don’t tell me it doesn’t matter. Rich white people have long complained about the money we spend on other people’s children while doing everything in their power to protect funding for their own.

In the late 1970’s, it was hoped the creation of the Department would be the first step to increasing federal funding of schools to one third of the total cost, thereby leveling the playing field somewhat.

But that never happened.

Now as then, the federal government only funds less than 10 percent of the cost.

To return to the metaphor with which this piece began, the creation of the department was like handing a starving child utensils without much actual food.

As the years have passed, we’ve used those tools for everything except nourishing students.

We’ve fed the child by guiding an empty fork into her cheek. We’ve poked and prodded her mouth with a knife.

The result hasn’t been for her benefit. Instead we’ve let special interests feed off of HERcharter schools, voucher schools, high stakes standardized testing corporations, the ed tech industry and even book and software publishers through the boondoggle of Common Core.

Many have insisted this misuse of the Department means we should do away with it entirely.

I disagree.

The child is still starving. It is still our responsibility to feed her.

You don’t do that by taking away her utensils.

Oh, you can feed her without them, but not very effectively. She can drink from the sink, but not as well as from a cup. She can eat with her hands, but not as easily as with utensils.

This latest proposed merger wouldn’t really satisfy anyone.

It wouldn’t do away with the department – it would hide it behind closed doors.

It would simply make it harder to see what was happening to it.

Moreover, it betrays an ideological bias against education for its own sake. Making the Department of Education part of the Department of Labor implies that the only reason one goes to school to learn job skills.

One can imagine a newly reorganized federal effort to cut anything from our schools that couldn’t be immediately connected with becoming a worker drone. And I don’t mean to imply this would be a new effort, because it’s already what President’s George W. Bush and Barack Obama were using the Department to achieve. But now it would be in the shadows and who knows what monstrosity could grow without the cleansing light of day?

This would help no one. It would be a continuation of the status quo (or possibly a doubling down on it) under a different name.

No one needs that.

What we need is to roll up our sleeves and meet students’ needs.

The child is hungry.

She has been sitting before us starving for decades and all we’ve done is give her the means to eat without the food.

Isn’t it time someone open the cupboard and get this kid something to eat!?

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Comments (4)
Steven Singer
Steven Singer


Linda Darling-Hammond was Obama's education advisor until he got elected. She would have been an excellent Secretary of Education, but the money men demanded Arne Duncan. Hammond was a lifelong educator with real classroom experience and knew what she was talking about. Duncan was a businessman. And so it goes. Diane Ravitch would have made a fine Education Secretary. So would John Kuhn, Carol Burris, Alfie Kohn, or Jesse Hagopian. And that's just speaking from the top of my head.


You know it's a bad idea when even your allies wouldn't dare support it. Why was Devos confirmed at all (oh because Pence!) and when will we have a decent education secretary at all. Past ones have been riddled with controversies from both political parties. Do you have any names worth their salt?

Philip Carino
Philip Carino

Devos is so out of touch why is she even Secretary!

Sam Jenkins
EditorSam Jenkins
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Steven Singer
EditorSteven Singer
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Pat Greer
EditorPat Greer
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