Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney described the plan to merge the Departments of Education and Labor as a way to modernize federal bureaucracy: “We’re still dealing with a government that is from the early 20th century.”
At first glance, it may seem like a good idea to eliminate bureaucratic bloat. After all, every administration promotes efforts to eliminate red tape — issues that every American deals with when interacting with the federal government. However, in this instance, this proposal would be a bad idea.
The Trump administration has operated from an ideological orientation, with little attention to policy details and implementation. Although this proposal does have some forethought, there are critical functions that both departments oversee that could be easily overlooked or eliminated in the reorganization.
Perhaps of biggest concern is that there is no historical relationship between these two departments. The Department of Labor has historical ties to the Department of Commerce and has been a Cabinet department since 1913. The Department of Education is a relatively young federal agency, created after the split of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980. Soon after, the dissolution of the Department of Education became a rallying call for Republicans, with President Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully calling for the elimination of the department. This proposal has re-emerged among Republican candidates, perhaps most notably when it was one of the three Cabinet departments candidate Rick Perry pledged to eliminate in 2011.
Along with the historical links, the Department of Labor has oversight over job seekers and retirees, safety and unemployment. The Department of Education has oversight over U.S. schools, educational law and civil rights. Although these functions overlap — and there are logical coordinated efforts in some areas, such as workforce training — we should recognize this proposal for what it really is: an ideological effort to diminish the role of federal oversight in education. This aspect, frankly, is the most worrisome and threatening aspect of the proposed merger.
The data that the Department of Education collects helps the federal government and the public to understand how inequality operates in our country’s schools.
Ironically, it was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who implemented the No Child Left Behind Act, which improved oversight regarding how racial groups, low-income students and students with disabilities performed in schools.
More recently, President Barack Obama’s Department of Education issued the “Dear Colleague” letter that reiterated that colleges have Title IX coordinators, and established procedures to address and resolve cases of student sex discrimination — but still advocating for due process and protections for the accuser and the accused. But under the Trump administration, Betsy DeVos and her staff have diminished the civil rights oversight function by scaling back enforcement of cases and guidance intended to protect survivors of sexual assault, transgender students and black students.
Some might argue that education has largely been the domain of the states. But we should remember the role the federal government played in integrating schools when states failed to move “with all deliberate speed.” Given the Trump administration’s doubling-down on deregulation, and insincerity addressing an ever-widening trend of segregation in schools by race and class, it becomes clear that students and parents need the protection provided by the Department of Education to ensure that the most poorly served students have a fair chance for educational success.
Although this current iteration of the Department of Education isn’t doing enough to protect students and advocate for equity, administrations do change. Without oversight and advocacy for the least advantaged in our schools, the federal government abdicates its responsibility to protect all students. An effort to merge these two departments is nothing more than a shell game that would result in greater imbalance, in an environment that desperately needs focus on achievement, student debt, and additional measures of equity.
Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. He is also assistant director of the Plan II Honors Program.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman and the Waco Tribune Herald.
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