Education Department

Much Ado About Very Little
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.

These are tumultuous days in the nation's capital and there is much going on to disturb the equanimity of responsible citizens who care about our country, but among these should not be the brouhaha about the nomination of Betsy Devos to be Secretary of Education. Her nomination is on the edge because two Republican Senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have said they will not vote to confirm her. One more defection from the Republican ranks could sink her nomination.
The primary gripe about Devos - aside from the fact that she is, like most Trump nominees, very wealthy - is that she has no background in the public school system, and is in fact an outspoken champion of charter schools. It is that last item that kicked over the education establishment beehive. Charter schools are a very real threat to the education status quo and as Secretary of Education, Devos would presumably continue her advocacy of the private sector challenge to the public school establishment.
I do not know Mrs. Devos but I assume from the record that she is a woman of some accomplishment and a laudable interest in public affairs. Her advocacy of charter schools should not be held against her. Over the past 20 years or so, charter schools have emerged as a viable alternative to public schools that have a dismal record of achievement. In fact, the failure of our public schools has been well documented since publication of "A Nation At Risk" in 1983 and since then student test scores continue to decline despite infusion of vast sums of money.
As for the U.S. Department of Education, it has evolved into a massive bureaucracy that serves primarily to consume taxpayer dollars and empower teachers' unions. Created in 1979, the Education Department has almost 5,000 employees and a budget of $73 billion. I do not believe if it ceased to exist tomorrow there would be any negative impact on the nation beyond the sudden unemployment of some bureaucrats.
Simply stated, the U.S. Department of Education is not a key element of our nation's schools which get less than 10 percent of their funding from Washington. Nor does it set education policy which authority belongs among the almost 14,000 boards of education around the country. Indeed, as far as I can discern, the Feds are regarded as a nuisance among the nation's educators as they issue a plethora of rules and mandates that make little or no sense to local school administrators.
I believe it is fair to say that the primary impediment to improving our schools is the education establishment as embodied by the teachers' unions wedded to the status quo and the U.S. Department of Education which is captive of the unions. If the Department of Education ceased to exist tomorrow it would be of little consequence and I would think it unlikely in the extreme if Mrs. Devos could make the current situation any worse.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.