I am calling on Congress to deeply examine the impact that the Trump administration’s proposal to merge the U.S. Department of Education with the Department of Labor could have on educational equity, on the ability of every child, regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, gender, language, to have access to the opportunities they need to thrive.
The Education Department was created in 1979 to give education the national prominence it needs and deserves, to ensure a member of the President’s Cabinet brought the education lens to conversations about national policy and advocated for the educational needs of all children. While most education policies are set at the state and local levels, the federal Education Department is positioned to serve as an equalizer, to ensure that all children receive the necessary support, resources, and quality of instruction. To be successful, we as a nation need an educated citizenry. Relegating education to a dual-purpose agency would dilute the importance it must hold.
I am particularly concerned about how this restructuring will impact students’ civil rights. Given the number of children of color our school systems are under-educating, it is safe to say we are a country in crisis. Black students are 14 percentage points and Hispanic students 11 percentage points less likely than their white peers to graduate from high school in four years, according to a 2013-14 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. What does that mean for their future, and the future of our country? High school graduates make more money than peers who do not finish high school – sometimes double over a lifetime. They pay more taxes and rely less on public services like welfare.
Why are there these racial disparities in our education system? Why, for example, are black students significantly more likely to be disciplined in school than their white classmates? While it does not explain the whole story, racial bias and discrimination certainly play a part. Recent research has shown us that black men who spent their childhood in neighborhoods with less racial bias earned more and were less likely to be incarcerated. Otherwise, they are more than twice as likely as white men to wind up living in poverty as adults, whether they were born into poverty or not.
In light of these facts, consider the Administration’s proposal to merge the education and labor agencies: As part of the reorganization, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights would be folded into an Enforcement Agency along with the Department of Labor’s largest office, responsible for overseeing worker protection. For years, civil rights investigations have been a critical part of the education department’s work. In 2016 alone, the office resolved 8,625 cases, including 1,116 that secured changes protective of students’ civil rights in schools. In this new consolidated structure, the work would inevitably be watered down, diminished, and lost.
Civil rights enforcement has already been diminished under the current administration. A recent analysis found that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is closing cases at a much faster rate than the previous administration, and is focusing on individual charges of discrimination rather than systemic cases where entrenched inequities could actually be addressed. Given this, imagine how much further civil rights efforts would be rolled back if this work is nested inside an agency with numerous competing work streams and responsibilities.
Finally, consider how consolidation would undermine the opportunities around equity presented by the bipartisan federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Some states have already consciously woven equity into their ESSA state plans, too many others have not. The U.S. Department of Education – dedicated alone to improving education, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable young people – has a strong role to play through guidance and oversight in assuring states take actions to close opportunity and achievement gaps.
Scaling back the federal government’s role in protecting young people’s civil rights flies in the face of what our country needs right now. If we want a well-educated workforce a generation from now, we must make sure we give every child access to the resources they need to be successful. As former President Jimmy Carter said when he announced the creation of the Department of Education in 1979, “Education is our most important national investment. … Our ability to advance both economically and technologically, our country’s entire intellectual and cultural life depend on the success of our great educational enterprise.”