Despite being marketed as an effort to shrink the federal government, the Trump administration’s proposal to merge the U.S. Department of Labor with the U.S. Department of Education is being criticized from all sides. Especially critical, though, have been many leading conservative education activists, who argue that the plan fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of education.
Under the proposal, reportedly drafted by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, the functions of both federal bureaucracies would be combined into one. More than a few supporters have even portrayed it as a way to quietly roll back the federal boot-print on America’s government schools. But according to what has been reported, many education functions would remain.
A key selling point is the notion that government schools are leaving children unprepared for the workforce, with millions of open jobs currently unfilled, reportedly because there are no suitable employees for the job. It is true that many American high-school graduates are practically useless. And so, the thinking is, by merging labor and education into the same agency, schools could train better workers.
But for critics of the plan, that is one of the major problems. The purpose of education, opponents say, is not simply to train good workers. In fact, throughout Western history, the purpose of education has traditionally been understood as teaching “the truth that sets men free,” as one heroic teacher put it in an e-mail. Schools should be teaching children how to read, write, and think — and how to sustain liberty and civilization.
Under the proposal, though, concerned education activists worry about a move toward more centralized workforce planning. “This would join education much too tightly to workforce development,” said education-policy expert Donna Garner, who supports abolishing the Education Department, at EducationViews.org. “What students all over this country need is deep foundational knowledge and skills which will then equip them to make higher education and/or career choices after high school graduation.”
“My concern is that by merging the Dept. of Education with the Dept. of Labor, the emphases will move America’s children in exactly the wrong direction – from developing a love for learning to feeling the pressure to choose a career pathway at a young age,” Garner said, adding that government workforce boards should not be making career decisions for children. “We do not want the American dream to be stolen from our children and instead replaced with the American nightmare job.”
A petition has been launched on the White House website urging that the proposal be quashed. “Education was never about getting a job,” it says. “When we make education about getting a job we are no longer educating future American citizens we are training human capital to meet the needs of the corporate world.”
“A truly ‘educated’ citizen is capable of learning anything to be successful,” the petition reads. “A ‘trained’ citizen becomes an obedient slave. The schools are to educate. The employer is to train. Using the education system to provide trained workers is NOT education. C. S. Lewis said it best ‘If education is beaten by training, civilization dies.’”
On the campaign trail, Trump suggested multiple times that he was hoping to shut down the Education Department — an idea long supported by Republicans that was a key part of Ronald Reagan’s platform. A bill in Congress by Representative Thomas Massie, H.R. 899, would abolish Fed Ed altogether, rather than transferring its functions to another bureaucracy.
It was not immediately clear what the chances were that the plan to merge the departments would succeed. But rather than investing political capital trying to merge two unconstitutional federal bureaucracies to create a bigger unconstitutional bureaucracy, the Trump administration should push to shut down both entirely. That way, control of education policy could be restored to states, communities, churches, and individuals — and education can be made great again!