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The US Department of Education, What It's For

NOTE: This is the first of several articles that will look at the US Department of Education and the pros and cons of eliminating it.

The Department of Education gained the status of a cabinet department under President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Its functions are as follows:

• Exercise leadership in promoting educational policies and reform efforts of national scope;

• Administer federal assistance programs authorized and appropriated by Congress;

• Enforce federal civil rights laws as they pertain to education;

• Provide information and statistics about education at the national and international levels; and

• Provide technical expertise to the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, other federal agencies and Executive Office of the President in conducting the foreign affairs of the United States as these pertain to education and within the limited scope of federal power in this area.

Although many citizens seem to think some of the following activities are conducted by the Department of Education, they are not.

• Own, control or oversee U.S. schools or postsecondary institutions;
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• Inspect, accredit, or license schools, postsecondary institutions, or other educational providers;
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• Set curricula or content standards for academic or professional subjects;
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• Hire or license faculty or other educational professionals;
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• Set educational standards for the admission, enrollment, progress, or graduation of students at any level;

• Set standards, license, or regulate professional occupations or practicing professionals (other than federal civilian and military personnel); or

• Determine or allocate educational budgets for states, localities, or institutions.

A stated goal of the current administration is to eliminate the cabinet-level status of the Department of Education. Presumably, its functions would be absorbed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

One justification offered for eliminating the Department of Education is that “it’s unconstitutional.”

This argument is based on the fact that education is not mentioned in the Constitution, therefore, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

For this reason, goes the argument, the federal government has no right to meddle in the education arrangements of the individual states.

Look again at the five functions of the DOE listed above.

Not one of the five gives the department the power to establish schools, dictate curriculum, or perform any of the functions carried out by departments of education in the states.

However, the third function does give the Department the authority to “enforce federal civil rights laws as they pertain to education.”

This is the function that opponents of the Department find most troubling.

If the federal department has the power to enforce civil rights laws in the public schools, then the states cannot practice racial segregation or reject various subgroups of children who do not conform to certain criteria.

If the new administration does succeed in abolishing the cabinet-level status of the Department of Education, presumably local education officials will still be required to honor the civil rights of all the children in their states.

We’ll continue this discussion in the next post.

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