NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Do We Need the Department of Education?

February 6, 2012

As President Obama makes remarks about making a sleeker government, and GOP candidates contend that a number of cabinet-level positions ought to be slashed, it becomes important to take a second look at certain departments.  Specifically, the need for the Department of Education, which first came into existence in 1979, should be reassessed on three crucial grounds -- any one of which would justify its continuation, says Charles Murray, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Is the federal government required or even allowed to provide for a public education system by the Constitution?
  • Is there some component, unique to education, which requires action on the federal level?
  • Has the Department of Education demonstrated on efficacy in resolving educational woes that, in and of itself, validates its continuation?

In regard to constitutionality, the answer almost certainly appears to be no.  Though the Supreme Court has undoubtedly legalized the federal government's intervention in education, nowhere in the Constitution is it even hinted that the government should be involved.

Furthermore, there is nothing about education that requires intervention on the federal level -- this country operated for centuries with no federal role in that field.

It is still possible for the Department of Education to be justified if it can be shown that it has had a significant, net positive effect on American education.  However, on a variety of metrics, this seems untrue.  Using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, researchers can find little reason to conclude that the department has had a beneficial impact on K-12 education.

Even in the field of equalizing educational opportunities between students of different races and income levels, the department seems ineffective.  Title I, meant to upgrade the schools attended by children from low-income families, has not been shown to close achievement gaps between students of differing backgrounds.  In short, the Department of Education appears to have little ability to improve educational outcomes across the board.

Source: Charles Murray, "Do We Need the Department of Education?" Imprimis, January 2012.

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