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Too Little, Too Late

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The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is seeking to repeal two Department of Education regulations that intrude on the authority of the states to set education policy.

The Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act (H.R. 2117) repeals

certain Department of Education regulations that for purposes of determining whether a school is eligible to participate in programs under the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA): (1) require institutions of higher education and postsecondary vocational institutions (except religious schools) to be legally authorized by the state in which they are situated, (2) delineate what such legal authorization requires of states and schools, and (3) define “credit hour.”

The bill also “prohibits the Secretary of Education from promulgating or enforcing any regulation or rule that defines ‘credit hour’ for any purpose under the HEA.”

According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.),

At the end of the day, the unnecessary state authorization and credit hour regulations will reduce local control and create uncertainty in postsecondary education. Instead of over-regulating the nation’s higher education system, we should focus our efforts on simplifying federal involvement and streamlining regulatory burdens.

Although advocates for the Constitution, decentralization, and limited government are rightly cheering this brief bill, it is unfortunately too little, too late.

The current cabinet-level federal Department of Education began operation in 1980. It was cobbled together from elements of the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare; Defense; Justice; Housing and Urban Development; Agriculture; and some other federal agencies.

The department’s mission is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Its current budget is about $68 billion.

Headquartered in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Building in Washington, D.C., the Department of Education employs a total of about 3,600 bureaucrats in the nation’s capital at that and five other locations. There are also about another 1,400 staff members who work in ten regional offices. Thirteen of the D.C. education bureaucrats are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. There are also about 110 other political appointees.

Ronald Reagan proposed abolishing of the Department of Education while campaigning for president in 1980. The Republican Party platforms of 1980 and 1996 likewise called for the department’s elimination:

We understand and sympathize with the plight of America’s public school teachers, who so frequently find their time and attention diverted from their teaching responsibilities to the task of complying with federal reporting requirements. America has a great stake in maintaining standards of high quality in public education. The Republican Party recognizes that the achievement of those standards is possible only to the extent that teachers are allowed the time and freedom to teach. To that end, the Republican Party supports deregulation by the federal government of public education, and encourages the elimination of the federal Department of Education.

Our formula is as simple as it is sweeping: the federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the work place. That is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning. We therefore call for prompt repeal of the Goals 2000 program and the School-To-Work Act of 1994, which put new federal controls, as well as unfunded mandates, on the States. We further urge that federal attempts to impose outcome- or performance-based education on local schools be ended.

But forget for a minute the Republican rhetoric and look instead at the Republican record.

During Reagan’s first six years as president, the Senate was controlled by the Republicans. The budget for the Department of Education increased from $14.7 billion in fiscal year 1981 (Jimmy Carter’s last budget) to $22.8 billion in fiscal year 1989 (Reagan’s last budget). During George H.W. Bush’s term in office, Congress was in the complete control of the Democrats. By his last fiscal year (1993), the education budget had increased to $32.5 billion. During Bill Clinton’s last six years in office, the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. Yet the education budget ballooned to $42.1 billion by fiscal year 2001 (Clinton’s last budget). Under George W. Bush, the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate for more than four years. During his term in office the education budget increased all the way up to $100 billion in fiscal year 2006 before leveling off in the $60 billion range.

That means that Republicans participated in the expansion of the Department of Education with a Republican president and one house of Congress controlled by the Republicans, with a Republican president and both houses of Congress controlled by the Democrats, with a Democratic president and both houses of Congress controlled by the Republicans, and with a Republican president and both houses of Congress controlled by the Republicans.

Contrary to the image that the Republican Party likes to put forth, it is just as committed to socialized education as the Democrats are. Just as it is just as committed to Social Security and socialized medicine.

The Department of Education should be eliminated, but not because it is too expense, not because it has too many bureaucrats, not because it is too intrusive into state and local affairs, not because it has failed to improve education, not because it is too beholden to the teachers’ unions, and not because it promotes a liberal agenda. The Department of Education should be eliminated because the federal government has been given no authority whatsoever by the Constitution to have anything to do with education.

That means no Elementary and Secondary Education Act, no Higher Education Act, no Education for All Handicapped Children Act, no Improving America’s Schools Act, no No Child Left Behind Act, no Race to the Top fund, no National School Lunch Program, no Head Start, no federal student loans, no Pell Grants, no mandates, no vouchers, no initiatives, no directives, no requirements, no regulations, and, of course, no Department of Education.

All of the fifty states have provisions in their constitutions for the operation of K-12 schools and colleges and universities. Of course, libertarians argue against government intrusion into education at all levels — federal, state, and local — on a philosophical level. But on the federal level, that doesn’t even matter. Because there is nothing in the Constitution that grants the federal government the authority to be involved in any manner with education, the immediate elimination of the entire education department and its bureaucrats shouldn’t even be an issue for Democrats and Republicans to fight over.

For the Republicans to now seek to repeal some Department of Education regulations is too little and too late to mean anything.

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