With the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education, it was inevitable that the current Administration would look at the possibility of greatly reducing or even de-funding the Department of Education. We are now faced with that very reality. To be sure, the department has had its share of issues and a careful review and redesign should remain on the table. However, the complete removal of any federal oversight within the field of education will have sweeping ramifications, that is, of course, if the current Administration can manage to pass this bill into law (there is no guarantee that will happen). As a life-long educator, administrator, and consultant; here are my thoughts on this matter.
Why It May Never Pass
To borrow a quote from the late Yogi Berra, ‘it’s déjà vu all over again’. Recently, the president’s promise to overhaul Obamacare went belly-up, partly due to its incredibly complex nature. Education is no picnic either. The proposal on the table that includes a heavy reliance on vouchers and school choice is short sighted and, quite frankly, ill fated. In the first place, it will be expensive and will have a limited effect. The current proposal aims to give $5-10,000 voucher credits to 2-4 million low income students at a cost of approximately 20 billion dollars leaving many unanswered questions. Who gets the vouchers and how is that determined? Giving vouchers to only 2-4 million needy students will leave many more millions behind. Additionally, determining eligibility screams of the oversight and regulations that this proposal is intent on dumping. How does $5-10,000 even come close to covering the tuition for students looking to attend private educational institutions that regularly charge upwards of $20,000 annually? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. The plain truth is that the institution of a voucher system will require an incredible amount of oversight. As Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas Fordham Institute, a Washington based educational think tank, writes:
“Which students are eligible to receive scholarships? What about kids already in private schools? What must private schools do to qualify? May they use their standard admissions requirements, or must they accept all comers? And what about transparency and accountability requirements? Should voucher recipients take state tests? Should the results be made public? Should schools get kicked out of the program if they don’t show enough student growth?” (Petrilli, 2017).
I would add a few more; who oversees the distribution of money? Who will ensure proper ethical financial responsibility? Both private and charter schools have seen their share of financial bugaboos over the last few decades leaving their schools in shambles and their families searching for answers. These questions, amongst the many, might just sink this proposal before it takes its first breath not to mention the political clout needed to ensure its passage through the House and Senate. Nevertheless, let us assume that the proposal does pass. What type of impact will that have on the state of education.
Voucher Proposal Impact
Should the Department of Education cease to exist or even function as a shell of its former self, the impact will be broadly felt across the nation. In the first place, states will have to bear the brunt of the burden for ensuring educational access for its students. Indeed, the reality is that states are already responsible for the majority of funding school operations. Teacher salaries, administrative costs, building and maintenance fees all fall under the umbrella of state funding. This will not change. However, each state will now have the added responsibility, should they choose to accept it, of funding programs previously managed by the Department of Education. This includes all special education funding and oversight, curricular accountability, specialized federal grants, free and reduced lunch programs, and regulatory agencies such as FAPE (Free and Appropriate Education) and ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act, formerly No Child Left Behind). Cash strapped states, battling to fund the basics of education may choose not to enact any funding or oversight in these areas leaving millions of students at risk. As a father of special needs children with federally backed IEP’s (Individual Education Plan), I may have no alternative means of support for my child’s disabilities. In addition, for students of minority, any notion of civil rights and/or guarantees will cease to exist along with any attempt at culturally competent curriculum (I wrote extensively on this for my doctoral thesis: see Postma, 2013). You can also bid adieu to any school counselors, social workers, or other support staff such as the reading specialist (I cannot emphasize enough the importance of these individuals in supporting the social/emotional well-being of our children on a daily basis). In short, anything previously supported by the federal Department of Education will now be at risk along with the jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers.
There is no doubt that our educational system as a whole needs to change. Inequity between rural and urban schools, city schools and suburban schools, and across state lines remains a serious issue. There is needless waste. There is pointless and widespread standardized student assessment that has strangled ingenuity and creativity. There remains a yawning achievement gap to name just a few of these problems that need remediation. Yes, the system is flawed. Nevertheless, the proposed action to de-fund education at the federal level will only serve to widen these gaps and stunt any attempt at true reform. The bottom line is this: over the long term, our country will suffer; our children will suffer. Despite the public perception of global ineptitude, our schools actually fair quite well against the competition, especially when it comes to problem solving and creativity; the hallmarks of invention. Defunding will remove any semblance of global aptitude and, in reality, make us weaker. What we need is thoughtful, well planned reform that eliminates waste and encourages holistic student growth and development for all our children, not a blind, shallow attempt at deregulation. To quote the colorful Yogi Berra again, ‘If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.’ Let’s be vigilant as to where we are going with education.
Petrilli, Michael (March 29, 2017). The three miracles required for Donald Trump to become the patron saint of school choice. The Education Gadfly, 17 (13).
Postma, Michael (2016). Whose History? A Review of History Standards Impact on Minorities. Saarbrucken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing