“A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” said John Locke.
So, informed citizens must greet with trepidation a one-sentence H.R. 899, introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie (R - Ky.), that simply declares, “the department of education shall terminate on Dec. 31, 2018.”
If enacted, this bill would end all federal involvement in public schools and return all “authority” to the states in matters of education. Clearly, though, this nation already has ample experience with strictly local control of education policy and the mixed results of inconsistent efforts from state to state.
A lack of national standards for universal education yielded substantial inequities in instructional programs across this land.
In an attempt to close the wide gaps, and in a commitment to education nationwide, President Jimmy Carter would sign into law the Department of Education Organization Act in 1979, making it a cabinet-level post instead of merely an office.
Today, as a justification for the elimination of the education department, the strict constructionists will point out that the word “education” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution.
This is true. Elected leaders are empowered, however, by a phrase in the Preamble that charges them with providing for the general welfare.
The recorded thoughts of the Founding Fathers on the topic of education are revelatory. John Adams clearly saw a role for the federal government when he opined, “the whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
Apparently, our newly-minted secretary of education does not concur. Absent any experience in the organization or delivery of instruction, Betsy DeVos enters office sporting a political agenda, not a pedagogical one. Reminiscent of the struggles in several South and Central American countries since the 1990s, the investor class – of which the secretary is a representative – seeks to turn our education system into a commodity available principally to the highest bidders.
Our public schools are arguably our most important social enterprise. We, the people, must struggle against these initiatives to harvest private profit from the public coffers at the expense of the least advantaged among us, or the effort to channel public funds into religious indoctrination.
Our democracy is at risk when a complete education is preferentially reserved for the affluent. Such a policy would require that we bid adieu to our egalitarian ideals as expressed by Thomas Jefferson’s “ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings.”