Today, Kevin Williamson has written a column arguing that we actually could use a Department of Education — among other reasons, to combat the rising threat from China.
I would advise reading his whole piece to consider his argument. But to be clear, Kevin acknowledges that, “The actual Department of Education we have exists primarily to service the interests of the largely unionized public-school personnel who do irreplaceable work funding and staffing Democratic political campaigns. It also maintains a sideline interest in Kulturkampf.” And he laments that it has devolved into a jobs program rather than one that actually invests in educating children.
Yet all of those things that Williamson imagines we could remove from the department are endemic to any large federal agency. Saying we need a Department of Education, but a less wasteful and more effective one, reminds me of the old argument that communism was a great theory, but just wouldn’t work in practice. (Not that I am accusing Kevin of being a closet commie.)
The problem with the Department of Education — aside from the fact that it goes well beyond the founding vision for the role of the federal government — is that it removes too many decisions from the local level, where parents can have more influence and where they retain the ability to move to if they don’t like the decisions of their local governments. Under the current model, taxpayers send money to Washington, which then squanders it, and sends a smaller amount back to states, often with directives.
Because it is federal, as the administration changes, the personnel have the ability to impose their vision on the whole country. That means that liberals had to (from their perspective) suffer for four years when Betsy DeVos was leading the department, and now conservatives are bracing for whatever the Biden administration is going to cook up. Even if the department could be completely reformed in the way Kevin suggests, there is no way that new model would survive one term of liberal governance.
In reality, the Department of Education should have never existed, it should have been abolished decades ago, and there is no plausible way to turn it into something useful.