President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the White House last month. 
Photo: The Washington Post
Photo: The Washington Post

Opinion: Rethinking fed’s education role makes sense. Trump’s plan does not.

Bruce Meredith is the former general counsel for the Wisconsin Education Association Council of the National Education Association. Mark Paige is associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and former school law attorney.

In this piece, the pair call for a rethinking of the federal Department of Education, but not in the way that President Donald Trump has suggested. 

By Bruce Meredith and Mark Paige 

The Trump administration recently proposed merging the Department of Education into the Department of Labor. Rethinking a stand-alone Department of Education is a good idea. Trump’s proposal is not. It is premised on the self-defeating concept that schools should produce efficient workers, not engaged citizens and life-long learners. 

But the time is right to think boldly about the department and the federal role in public education. In that spirit, we propose the creation of a new Cabinet office: the Department of Children, Families, and Communities. This reorganization would recognize that a child’s future depends just as much -- if not more -- on variables outside of classrooms and schools. 

Good instruction is essential to student achievement. But to thrive, children need more. Strong families, vibrant communities, and economic opportunities for them and their families are vital to a child’s future prosperity. 

Unfortunately, the Department of Education describes its primary mission to promote “student achievement.” Viewing children as only students invites policies that ignore other key factors that make children not only successful as students, but as adults and citizens. It perpetuates a misguided notion that schools, alone, solve economic and social inequality. 

No Child Left Behind pushed this simplistic concept to its logical extreme. Incredibly, it mandated that every child in every school demonstrate proficiency in reading and math tests by 2014. To achieve this utopian goal, the Department of Education relentlessly pursued a “no excuses” policy. If the mandates were not met, teachers were to be fired and schools shuttered.  

NCLB led to a host of unintended consequences. Schools narrowed curriculum. States lowered standards. Policymakers and politicians scapegoated teachers. Faith in public schools eroded. Ironically, test scores improved only marginally. Most problematic, it allowed politicians, parents and students to escape their respective responsibilities for a child’s development through other institutions, not just schools. 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” simply endorsed the department’s narrow vision of children as students. It poured more than $4 billion into efforts to link student achievement and teacher employment with test scores. It continued to ignore factors like child poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, lack of family and community support that directly impact a child’s well-being, including educational performance.  

President Trump’s merger proposal takes an even more restricted view of the federal approach to helping our children. Merging education within a labor department reflects children as laborers, not even students.  

This is a dangerous gamble with our future. A “workplace view” of children risks training students for jobs that might not exist after they graduate, leaving them unprepared for a world likely to be very different from what is envisioned. Worse, it will deprive them of an education that promotes our democracy, one that emphasizes critical reasoning, analysis, and a search for objective truth.  

To be sure, our children need preparation to become self-sustaining members of the economy. But our nation requires that our children be prepared also – and perhaps more importantly – to contribute to active civic and community life. 

Toward this goal, a Department of Children, Families, and Communities would focus federal resources on helping children develop the full set of skills needed to be not just successful students but stronger, self-sustaining individuals and active citizens. It would be a place where the federal government could develop and sustain the type of broad commitment our children need that includes educational policy, among many others. 

It would be efficient, too. The department could coordinate the existing array of federal resources for children currently scattered throughout the bureaucracy. It could also forge new school, community and business alliances, integrating services and bring greater expertise to meet children’s needs. 

The federal government needs to stop its slipshod approach to helping our children succeed. Politicians continually proclaim that our kids are our nation’s future. It’s time for them to practice what they preach. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.