Over the past decade, U.S. Department of Education legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top has driven American education policy. NCLB, in particular, has been so influential that it's hard to believe that the DOE hasn't always existed. But it was only 32 years ago today that President Jimmy Carter signed the Department of Education Organization Act into law. It was the first successful effort to create a cabinet-level, independent education agency in American history.
The biggest sticking point in the formation of the DOE is that there's no mention of education in the Constitution, so it's left up to the states. In order to avoid concerns about an overly top-down, federally run education system, the DOE wasn't supposed to mandate education policy. It was supposed to crunch data, encourage successful local initiatives, and share them as national models.
Perhaps the first big influential action of the DOE was the release of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which described American schools as responsible for a "rising tide of mediocrity" and set off a flurry of state and local reforms. By the time the No Child Left Behind Act was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, the role of the DOE had morphed from sharing big-picture education data to mandating what states and schools should do.
Similarly, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Race to the Top program has seen cash-strapped states and school districts jumping through hoops—agreeing to policies that are coming from the top down—just so they can get the funds they need to keep the lights on. Last week Duncan ignited the ire of over 1,000 Los Angeles area residents when he walked out of a Town Hall meeting after 20 minutes, despite the fact that the event had been advertised as a "space for the public to ask questions and share their thoughts" with the DOE.
Given the expansion of the DOE's authority, critics like Sen. Rand Paul want to completely shutter the agency. And, despite the National Education Association being heavily influential in the formation of the DOE, many educators are also no longer fans given the teacher bashing that goes on at the agency—like when Duncan applauded the mass layoffs of teachers in Rhode Island.
There needs to be some kind of national entity working to sure that all states truly are providing a quality public education to children, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, class, creed, or sexual orientation. But when both Tea Partiers and teachers are asking whether we need a DOE, it's clear that something's broken. Perhaps if the department can take a cue from its original plan, it will regain its credibility. Only then will Americans stop asking if it's needed.