Education as a tool for upward social mobility is of little interest to those already in possession of privilege and power.
In his essay “How Free is Higher Education?” the renowned historian, Howard Zinn observed that “education has always inspired fear among those who want to keep the existing distributions of power and wealth as they are.” The egalitarianism of an equitable education poses a threat to the status quo.
So, it should come as no surprise that in his “Crippled America” speech on Nov. 3, 2015, then Presidential candidate Donald Trump proclaimed, “A lot of people believe the department of education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don’t eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach. Education has to be run locally.” Could it be that a well-educated populace is no longer in the national interest in the “Age of Information?”
The President-elect is not the first conservative to advocate for elimination of the department of education. At approximately 16 percent of the federal budget, it is an attractive target. The proposal has been bandied about ever since the 1973 case before the Supreme Court, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, where the Justices ruled that “the appellees did not sufficiently prove that education as a fundamental right existed within the U.S. Constitution.” School funding based on local property taxes was found not to be an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Geographic inequities in schoolhouses remain prevalent even today.
If the U.S. Constitution is silent on the topic of education as a civil right, perhaps we should turn our attention to Article 26 of the Universal Bill of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, which declared that “everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”
Still, the department of education has worked consistently to maximize the potential that resides in every child. To that end, it established national standards, used Title I to level the playing field for children living in poverty, mandated services to children with special needs, and compelled states to uphold high professional standards for all those who work with children. Laudable goals, all!
Let us agree that top-down edicts of federal education policy have, at times, induced unintended consequences. However, replacing equitably-resourced public schools with the competition of the marketplace will accomplish little more, in the long run, than the creation of a permanent underclass and a return to the days of children in certain zip codes being considered societal throwaways.