Shut Down the U.S. Department of Education

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by Steven Yates

Recent revelations demonstrate clearly what many of us have maintained all along about waste and fraud at the federal level. In this case, the culprit is the U.S. Department of Education, created in the late 1970s by then-President Jimmy Carter. An article that appeared earlier this month in the Augusta Chronicle, based in Augusta, Georgia, documents how the Department of Education has lost almost half a billion federal government (i.e., taxpayer) dollars due to waste, fraud and accounting errors, according to DOE Inspector General Lorraine Lewis. I doubt such an article would have appeared in pro-expanded-government publications like the New York Times or the Washington Post.

The following facts were revealed by Lewis and reported by the Augusta Chronicle:

  1. Until last September (presumably when it first dawned on the watch-clerks in the DOE that something was amiss) 21 employees wrote roughly 19,000 checks for as much as $10,000 a piece without supervision; the amount unaccounted for totaled $23 million.
  2. Grant money, in the form of checks totaling $250 million, was issued twice to the same recipients on more than 20 separate occasions.
  3. Employees went on spending sprees with government (i.e., taxpayer) money using government credit cards. Most were allowed credit limits as high as $10,000 per month. This applies to about 230 employees. A few others had limits going up to $25,000 per month and two were able to charge $300,000 per month.
  4. The employees were sometimes spending these taxpayer dollars on items for personal use, including cell phones, computers and software – expenditures cites as "inappropriate" according to the DOE's own rules.
  5. Some 141 credit card statements (of 676 that were audited), including those with purchases valued as high as $1 million, were not signed by supervisors.
  6. Taxpayer dollars intended for certain purposes was diverted by employees for private use. Some $2 million intended for Native American children and the children of those in the military were found to have been spent on new automobiles, real estate, etc. The Augusta Chronicle reports that much of this money has now been recovered in a civil lawsuit.
  7. Six employees of the DOE recently pleaded guilty to stealing $1 million in equipment and giving false reports of working overtime.

It is worth emphasizing the taxpayer in "taxpayer dollars" rather than simply calling it government money. I recall Milton Friedman's quietly pointing out that "the government doesn't have any money." Except, of course, what it gets from taxpayers, i.e., you and I, who have real jobs, own businesses, etc. In light of these revelations, one Congressman, U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) has actually suggested that the U.S. Department of Education be shut down – "at least until the financial problems are straightened out."

The problems, though, are worse than the loss or outright theft of taxpayer dollars. During the period the U.S. Department of Education has been in existence, the problems in government schools have worsened, not improved. Test scores have fallen; discipline problems have risen to the point where many students and even teachers no longer feel safe in them. When I was in high school in the early 1970s, metal detectors at the main entrances of schools was unheard of. So were school shootings.

Government schools, moreover, are more and more subject to political agendas such as the efforts to purge Confederate symbols — resulting in teenagers being sent home for wearing T-shirts with such symbols on them. Some of what goes on in government schools is now so silly one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Consider the female principal at a Maryland school who has issued an injunction against students playing tag. Too rough on the little tykes — especially when boys are allowed to play freely. Political agendas, though, not education, are the specialties of bureaucrats and affirmative action charity cases. They assume paramount importance whenever genuine education is no longer a priority item. Students, of course, are the real, long term losers.

So a kind of temporary shut-down "until the problems are straightened out" does not go far enough. It will not go far enough until we look at the U.S. Department of Education in light of the U.S. Constitution, and in light of the fact that these kinds of problems are endemic to centralization in federal agencies and cannot be resolved by this or that quick-fix.

The Constitution nowhere mentions education as a federal responsibility. It nowhere authorizes any U.S. president, any federal body or any agency to set up and micromanage a system of schools. In other words, Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education without any Constitutional authorization whatsoever! The current problems are nothing more, and nothing less, than a product of federal government run amuck – freed from restraints that would remain in place if we lived in a Constitutional republic.

There are other problems besides Constitutional ones. There is no reason to think that the federal government can run schools and make them effective simply by throwing more taxpayer dollars at them. An old truth holds: social problems, whether in education or anywhere else, are most likely to be identified and properly addressed at the most local level possible. This truth has been largely lost in our era of centralization, bureaucracy and Empire. Expenditures on education at the state and local levels make some sense, because state and local officials have far more contact with the communities they serve. If they screw up, they can be held accountable at the ballot box – unlike Washington bureaucrats. At the local level, many of these officials live either in or in close enough proximity to the communities they serve that they have even stronger incentive to address real issues and problems because what they do affects them (and their children) directly. How on Earth can federal bureaucrats, based hundreds or even thousands of miles away in the capitol city of the Washington Empire, be effective at solving problems that differ somewhat from locality to locality – even if they have the best of intentions?

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education – like many other things the federal government does that are nowhere found in the Constitution – has become an almost untouchable sacred cow. Educrats will denounce anyone suggesting the agency be eliminated as "against education." No, what we are against is not education but an intrusive, inept and unconstitutional bureaucracy. The Republican Party of roughly a decade ago seemed to have understood this. There were moves afoot in the early 1990s to eliminate the agency. No more. As the country, including the neocon-dominated Republican Party, has more and more accepted centralization as its overriding political and economic philosophy, agencies entrusted with micromanaging this or that activity from Washington have become untouchable. The media reinforce this, with their bland acceptance of expansionist government despite repeated revelations of waste, corruption and negligence. Educators themselves frequently don't help. They like the federal grant money that comes their way. How many projects are now completely dependent on federal grants?

Because of the amount of disinformation, a person who ran for national office today on a campaign platform calling for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education would probably not have a chance. The person would not be able to obtain the support of either of the two dominant political parties (the others, it is clear, do not have the resources to mount credible campaigns capable of winning national elections). Moreover, such a candidate would be attacked mercilessly by well-funded, left-leaning teachers' unions such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Finally, it is not clear that such an effort would have the support of the public, large segments of which either don't care or have fallen hook, line and sinker for the idea that problems can be better solved when the federal government takes them over. It is ironic that so many people lament paying the highest federal taxes in U.S. history but wouldn't like it at all when responsibility for what these tax dollars buy (somewhat well-kept roads and highway systems, for example) falls to the state and local levels and ultimately to themselves. This is one of the phenomena of modern education: many people, educated in government schools, simply cannot make these connections. And so they court politicians who favor more and more government, making sure the "freebies" stay in place. The "freebies" include, of course, "free" government schools as an entitlement.

Well over 200 years ago, the historian Alexander Tyler predicted our current state of affairs when he observed that "[a] democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy always followed by dictatorship."

Which is why the Framers did not really create a democracy but a Constitutional republic, based on the idea of limiting the federal government to a few, clearly identified functions which did not include setting up and running schools. How, or even whether, we can get the country back to that particular form of government remains the most formidable challenge of our time – particularly when many of the products of government schools have been trained to identify such ideas as "hating government."

Steven Yates [send him mail] has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action. He is presently compiling selected essays into a single volume tentatively entitled What Is Wrong With the New World Order and Other Essays and Commentary and a work on a second book, The Paradox of Liberty. He also writes for the Edgefield Journal, and is available for lectures. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and is starting his own freelance writing business, Millennium 3 Communications.

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