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Real Educational Freedom


The federal secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is calling on Americans to embrace a vision of “education freedom” that empowers students and parents with a “multitude of pathways” toward new opportunities.

DeVos made her remarks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — held February 27–March 2 outside Washington, D.C. — during a question-and-answer session with Kay Coles James, president of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

James and DeVos “had a wide-ranging discussion at CPAC that touched on the Trump administration’s policy goals, the prospects for school choice, options for military families, and the status of First Amendment freedoms in educational settings.”

Real educational freedom was not on the agenda.

Instead, school choice “figured prominently in the discussion.” Although the “wealthy and well-connected” benefit from school choice, including private schools, said James, “the same is not true for many low-income families and average Americans.” “Federal grant programs help cover the costs of higher education,” said DeVos, but these options “are not as ubiquitous” at the K-12 level.

One “pathway” proposed by DeVos was “educational savings accounts to benefit military families who don’t want to send their children to failing public schools.” “Military families face unique challenges in meeting the educational needs of their children.” They tend to be mobile, “moving from base to base,” so “it can be difficult for them to have continuity.” “Making available federal funds for use in education savings accounts is one solution.” Military families “should be able to “tap into education savings accounts” and use them to “customize” the learning experiences of their children.

There’s just one problem, and it’s an insurmountable one.

Not only does the Constitution not authorize the federal government to make available federal funds for use in education savings accounts, it nowhere gives the federal government any authority to have anything to do with education.

DeVos is head of a federal department that should not exist.

Although the federal government has been involved in education since it began “to collect information on schools and teaching that would help the States establish effective school systems” in 1867, the cabinet-level federal Department of Education did not officially begin operation until 1980. It was established by the Department of Education Organization Act of 1979 that split the Department of Education, and Welfare into the departments of Education, and Health and Human Services.

Headquartered in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Building in Washington, D.C., the Department of Education employs about 4,400 bureaucrats in the nation’s capital and other locations. Its mission is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” It is dedicated to:

  • Establishing policies on federal financial aid for education, and distributing as well as monitoring those funds.
  • Collecting data on America’s schools and disseminating research.
  • Focusing national attention on key educational issues.
  • Prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal access to education.

The department

operates programs that touch on every area and level of education. The Department’s elementary and secondary programs annually serve nearly 18,200 school districts and over 50 million students attending roughly 98,000 public schools and 32,000 private schools. Department programs also provide grant, loan, and work-study assistance to more than 12 million post-secondary students.

According to a government “Fact Sheet” on Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019, the budget provides $63.2 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Education. This includes:

  • Providing $1.5 billion in support of the president’s long-term goal of giving every student the opportunity to attend a school of his choice.
  • Providing $500 million, an increase of $160 million or nearly 50 percent, to strengthen state and local efforts to start new charter schools or expand and replicate existing high-performing charter schools.
  • Providing $129.8 billion in new post-secondary grants, loans, and work-study assistance to help an estimated 11.5 million students and their families pay for college.
  • Protecting the Pell Grant program by level-funding the discretionary appropriation, which would continue to make college more affordable for an estimated 7.6 million students by maintaining the maximum award of $5,920.

DeVos says that “the President’s budget request expands education freedom for America’s families while protecting our nation’s most vulnerable students.”

Republicans used to call for the elimination of the Department of Education. Ronald Reagan proposed abolishing it while campaigning for president in 1980. The Republican Party platforms of 1980 and 1996 likewise called for its elimination. Yet, federal spending on education tremendously increased during the Republican presidencies of Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Some libertarians seem to be quite enamored with Betsy DeVos, mainly because of her views about school choice, that is, giving one group of Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children. If DeVos expressed a desire to preside over the dismantling of the Department of Education and the laying off of its thousands of bureaucrats, then perhaps all libertarians could share the enthusiasm of some of their brethren.

But not only should the federal Department of Education not exist, actions of the federal government related to education should not exist either.

That means no student loans, Pell Grants, scholarships, school breakfast and lunch programs, Head Start funding, educational vouchers, research grants to colleges, Higher Education Act, or Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But it also means no bilingual-education mandates, math and science initiatives, Title IX mandates, school accreditation, anti-discrimination policies, standardized-testing requirements, Common Core standards, desegregation orders, or special-education mandates.

Since the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to regulate or spend one penny on education — and doesn’t even mention education — all federal spending on education should be ended and the Department of Education should be shuttered.

But that is only the beginning of educational freedom.

Secretary DeVos reminded her audience at CPAC that “most education policy happens at the state level.” Every state has a provision in its constitution for a public education system: K-12, vocational school, college, and university. Under the American federal system of government, if there are to be public schools, they must be totally and completely under the authority of state governments.

But real educational freedom must also include the shuttering of the state-controlled local public schools. There should be no public-school teachers, property taxes earmarked for public schools, charter schools, government teacher-education requirements, government teacher-certification standards, or mandatory attendance laws.

Libertarians can wholeheartedly agree with DeVos: Americans should embrace a vision of “education freedom” that empowers students and parents with a “multitude of pathways” toward new opportunities.

Libertarians just insist that government education should not be one of those “pathways.” Government should not own schools; operate schools; fund anyone’s education, directly or through vouchers, grants, or loans; or regulate education in any way. Education must be completely separated from the state, at all levels.

It is the responsibility of adults to educate themselves and parents to educate their children. How they choose to do that is entirely up to them, but public schooling shouldn’t be one of the “multitude of pathways” to education.

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