Column

Education unfits us for slavery; we need to protect the Department of Education

The new White House proposal to merge the Departments of Education and Labor views students only as workers

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

Ex-slave and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) (1817 - 1895) as a young man, 1848. He became the first black man to be received at the White House, by President Abraham Lincoln.

Ex-slave and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) (1817 – 1895) as a young man, 1848. He became the first black man to be received at the White House, by President Abraham Lincoln.

While the world was focused on the horrific Trump administration policy of family separation, they were pushing other awful proposals through. While we rubbernecked at the “zero tolerance” immigration policies that have undoubtedly caused trauma to children separated from their families, last week, the White House released a 132-page proposal to restructure the federal government. It calls into question “how well the current organizational constructs of Government are aligned to meet Americans’ needs in the digital age.” Headlining this proposal is a plan to merge the Departments of Education and Labor into a single federal agency, the Department of Education and the Workforce.

The notion of a governmental reboot seems fair enough. Government bureaucracies that grow over time can be anathema to innovation and efficiency. Technology has challenged the way we engage with all institutions, and the federal government could certainly improve its use of technology to better deliver services.

However, the chief problem in this country has been our nefarious desire to link education and labor — at times with chains. We don’t need a federal agency to concretize the connection.

Some parts of the plan seem reasonable enough. For instance, splitting the responsibilities of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — Civil Works, which does water resource and flood risk management, and moving it out of the Department of Defense and into the Departments of Transportation and the Interior But education deserves more attention than this plan would allow. In addition, there are many agencies that intersect and interact with education, such as Health and Human Services, which manages the federal Head Start pre-school program, part of the DOE’s push for quality early learning, and Housing and Urban Development, which coordinates with HHS and the DOE to help homeless children get those early learning services.

The reality is that the Departments of Education and Labor are big enough and important enough to be standalone agencies. Unschooled reductions in government and reflexive conservatism create more problems and inefficiencies than they purport to resolve.

Related: The route school buses can take toward racial equity

Sure, education is linked to the workplace. Students grow up to be workers, and the federal government has a role in ensuring states are providing a quality education, especially in districts with many black and brown children. However, to collapse education and labor into a single agency is to also reduce education’s role in developing full human beings. Students are more than widget makers for the economy. And black students, whose ancestors’ bodies were once reduced to instruments of labor in slavery, have the most to lose from a shortsighted, politically-driven merger of the U.S. education and labor departments.

Children need to view themselves as full human beings, as citizens even, something a good liberal arts foundation provides. By limiting education to a workforce development function and downplaying its political, social and development roles, the conservative position that education must be in service to the workforce benefits those who are currently in power, and education leaders are aggressively converting that belief into policy.

Last week, news outlets reported that The University of Colorado’s Board of Regents is considering a proposal to remove the word “liberal” from a description of the Regent’s academic freedom principles. A part of that board policy currently reads, “The University of Colorado was created and is maintained to afford men and women a liberal education in the several branches of literature, arts, sciences and the professions.”

The country’s political environment has gotten so toxic that a board that oversees a state’s flagship institution of higher learning doesn’t care to distinguish between the different meanings of “liberal” as a political position and as a form of education steeped in history that encourages the acquisition of broad knowledge, critical thinking and an appreciation of science, culture, ethics and civics. These kinds of head-scratching, politically ignorant actions lay bare the very reason that people need a quality liberal arts education. The Colorado plan is stupid, and this DOE-DOL merger would allow for even more stupidity, because both suppress opportunities to develop higher levels of reasoning that lead to political and professional freedom.

Related: Betsy DeVos’ smoking gun of ignorance

Since President Andrew Johnson created the education department in 1867, there has always been a fear that a federal education department would siphon control away from the states, which are constitutionally required to establish local school systems. Johnson demoted the department to an office a year after he created it. That office has resided in various agencies since 1868, including the U.S. Department of the Interior and the former U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services). President Jimmy Carter restarted the DOE in 1979, partly because he felt that education was too big in scope and too important to be shoved within another department.

“Instead of being buried in a $200 billion-a-year bureaucracy, educational issues will receive the top-level priority they deserve,” President Carter said on October 17, 1979 as he signed the Department of Education Organization Act into law. “For the first time, there will be a Cabinet-level leader in education, someone with the status and the resources to stir national discussion of critical education concerns.”

Collapsing it down in size isn’t a new or innovative move. Conservatives — and some liberals — periodically sound the call to downgrade the education department because they feel it saps power from the states or it should be aligned with another agency. Most notably, Ronald Reagan campaigned on a platform that he would abolish the department created by his predecessor. This new effort is nothing novel or creative. However, the merging of education with labor is particularly worrisome, given that we’ve witnessed a stripping of workers’ rights, and decreasing respect for labor with the fall of unionization rates over the last 30 years. Wage stagnation and declining bonuses in spite of a booming economy are symptoms of devaluing workers. Conjoining the education and labor departments won’t change that view.

Related: We need an education commission to take a critical look at private schools

In his book, “All Labor has Dignity,” Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “This was the period of slavery. During this period the Negro was an “it” rather than a “he,” a thing to be used rather than a person to be respected.” It was an effective tactic to suppress a people — then and now.

The White House’s new effort to diminish the Department of Education comes at a time when whites have to transition to being minorities. In 2014, white students became the minority in our public schools (partly a result of white students’ overrepresentation in private schools). And a way to prevent numerical power from converting into political and economic power is to see the majority of its public students as “its,” as workers, not citizens.

The DOE cannot hide from students of color, from seeing them as citizens with equal voting rights who can and will demand better-paying jobs, affordable housing and fair policing. This merger proposal, part of Donald Trump’s campaign promise “to make America great again,” signals that students are something to be used, as King described.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in 1838 to become one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders, quoted his owner in his book Life of an American Slave: “[I]f you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”

We need to keep education separate so we will never confuse what its purpose really is:  freedom.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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