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September 21 2018

Obama’s Secretary of Education Accuses Trump of Having “No Agenda” in K-12 Education. But No Agenda Would Be a Yuge Improvement.

by Inez Feltscher Stepman

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who headed the Department during President Obama’s years in office, is taking aim at the Trump administration for failing to follow in his footsteps.

Duncan had this to say in an op-ed in The Guardian earlier in September, and repeated remarks to the same effect at the National Press Club on Thursday.

“My tenure as education secretary was not perfect, but we were committed to aspirational goals and to students. This was true of so many others, including governors like John Kasich, Bill Haslam and Jack Markell. What we shared was the ultimate goal: to make America the world leader in education once more.

Today, no such goals exist. The Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos don’t talk about improving educational outcomes. The Trump administration has no position on increasing access to pre-K, or continuing the work of raising high school graduation rates, or of once again leading the world in college graduation rates. It doesn’t talk about how to help teachers be better at their extremely difficult jobs, and it’s silent on the issue of increasing teacher pay. Some maintain this is due to incompetence, but the more I listen to the president, the more I’m convinced that the administration’s lack of educational goals is by design.”

“Not perfect” is a very generous way to describe the results, not just of Secretary Duncan’s tenure, but of the entire federal project in education. Since the 1970s, federal funding for K-12 education has nearly tripled, pouring taxpayer investment into the kinds of programs Duncan lists, and student achievement has not improved, but stagnated.

Nor has federal funding narrowed the eye-popping achievement gaps between racial or socioeconomic groups in the education system. In 1992, when the “nation’s report card” (NAEP) test was first administered, the testing gap between black and white high school seniors was 24 points, or close to two and a half years of learning. Today, it’s 29 points, about three years, wider than ever.

There’s a reason the Department of Education rarely releases studies examining the results of its many programs; the results rarely support the continued investment of American taxpayers. The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program received billions to dole out as part of the Obama stimulus in 2009, ostensibly to improve the worst schools in the country. But the Department’s own analysis concluded that those taxpayer billions had made no statistically significant improvement in the performance of the schools that received them. Worse, a third of the schools that received funds saw actual declines in academic performance.

And let’s not forget incredibly unpopular federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and incentivizing Common Core.

The Department of Education doesn’t teach a single student. But it does pay its employees an average six-figure income and create massive compliance burdens for states. Almost half the paperwork at state departments of education is directly related to federal compliance, despite the fact that the federal government provides only ten percent of the money to operate schools (the rest comes from states and localities).

Perhaps one of the reasons the federal government has such a poor record making positive changes in education is that it was never supposed to be their job in the first place. The Constitution wisely excludes education from the powers of the national government, not because the Founders thought education was unimportant, but exactly because they understood that it was crucial to maintaining a republic. Thomas Jefferson, one of the biggest advocates of public education at the time of the Founding, wrote to Virginia Governor John Tyler in 1810:

"I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength. 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within a central school within it."

Too often today, we make the mistake of assuming that if something is important, it must be federalized. The Trump administration has “no agenda” for K-12 education? Good. The federal government’s agenda for education has been nothing but an expensive and unconstitutional failure. No agenda would be a vast improvement.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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