U.S. Secretary of Education gave his first post-election speech on November 8. He kicked off his remarks with a heaping helping of economic unreality. First, he spoke of the importance of government investing in education—even though government doesn’t invest anything. It spends other’s people’s money. Next, Duncan proclaimed:
…today I am so happy to see that the American people have recognized education as the key to economic growth and prosperity—and the surest path out of poverty in our knowledge-based economy…. As the President said on election night, there is still so much urgent work to do. We have so much to accomplish before education is truly the great equalizer it must be for all children in America. But we are on our journey now. We are moving forward.
If this sort of rhetoric sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
Back in the late 1970s proponents of a Cabinet-level Department of Education basically said the same thing. Leading proponent Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT) insisted in 1977, “The time is long overdue for a cabinet Department of Education to coordinate education programs, eliminate duplication and waste, and strengthen and improve American education.” Likewise, Rep. Elliott Levitas (D-GA) believed the department would result in “better educational opportunity for the boys and girls and the young men and women in America. There is no question about that.” Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-MA) agreed. “We need a special Department of Education,” according to Speaker O’Neil. “We are doing it in the best interests of ourselves, of our children, and of our Nation’s educational future.”
But Democrats weren’t the only ones who believed education policy decisions should be made in Washington.
Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS)—who would later condemn the U.S. Department of Education when running for president—actually praised an earlier and even more expansive plan for one in 1978. “Every day, millions and millions of children…sit in classrooms across America…I believe it is our responsibility to see that these young citizens receive the best education we can provide, and I feel that a new Department of Education is one way toward that goal.” Among those voting in favor of the 1978 Department of Education bill was then Sen. Howard Baker (R-TN), who would later serve as Senate Majority Leader and White House Chief of Staff under President Ronald Reagan. He declared that the bill “marks a new and exciting day for education in the United States. I believe it will help usher in an era of improved coordination and cooperation in education programs across the country.”
Everything new is old again, apparently. After decades of a federal department that was supposed to improve education, Secretary Duncan’s education urgency is really no different than it was generations ago. So what’s the bold plan moving “forward”? Essentially it’s spending billions more dollars (that we don’t really have) on proficiency mandates imposed by the U.S. Department of Education—and then allowing states to opt-out of them as long as they agree to adopt Common Core national standards, costing taxpayers even more. (By the way, no Common Core advocate I know can explain how state politicians won’t game these national standards to make more students seem proficient like they did under their own state standards.)
But the real losers are students. For all the political talk about the children and parental involvement, until parents are involved where it matters most—using their children’s education dollars to send them to school they think are best—don’t expect large scale improvements. But there are sure to be lots more speeches.