Heartless Administration Proposes Government Overhaul; Defines Education as Workforce Prep

People my age remember that before there was a U.S. Department of Education, the work relating to education was located in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Now the Trump Administration has proposed collapsing the Department of Education and the Department of Labor into one agency. Where you locate a department in the organizational chart says something about how you understand that agency’s purpose.

When President Jimmy Carter established the Department of Education in 1979, the dominant view was that government had an obligation on behalf of society to protect the welfare of children and had a responsibility to our poorest citizens. The Washington Post‘s Lisa Rein reports that yesterday’s proposed government restructure was designed by Mick Mulvaney, who leads the Office of Management and Budget, to reflect President Donald Trump’s view that the federal government is bloated. But in advance of the White House’s announcement, the Washington Post‘s Lisa Rein and Damian Paletta added: “The plan is also expected to include major changes to the way the government provides benefits for low-income Americans, an area that conservatives have long targeted as excessive, by consolidating safety-net programs that are administered through multiple agencies.”

Under the new plan, the Education and Labor departments would be merged into a new Department of Education and the Workforce.  The Department of Health and Human Services would absorb services from several other departments and would now be called the Department of Health and Public Welfare. The new plan cannot be imposed without Congressional approval, and experts warn that it is unlikely Congress will vote to endorse the plan particularly in an election year.

The NY TimesGlenn Thrush and Erica Green elaborate on what the new plan would mean for social service programs like foodstamps (now called SNAP): “The plan… includes relocating many social safety net programs into a new megadepartment, which would replace the Department of Health and Human Services…. Mr. Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, the architect of the plan, have sought to redefine as welfare subsistence benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, and housing aid.  It is part of a rebranding effort, championed by conservative think tanks and House Republicans, to link them to unpopular direct-cash assistance programs that have been traditionally called welfare… At the heart of the plan is an attempt to shift SNAP, which serves more than 42 million poor and working-class Americans, to the new agency from the Agriculture Department.  Conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and Koch-related entities, have long sought to de-link food aid from agriculture in hopes of cutting costs.” The Trump administration has already allowed states to add work requirements to two programs serving the poor—SNAP and Medicaid, requirements which are eliminating from the rolls many who otherwise qualify for benefits.

Why propose combining the Departments of Education and Labor into a new Department of Education and the Workforce? The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss explains concisely what the change reflects about the Trump administration’s understanding of the purpose of education: “The proposal would underscore the belief held by Trump and DeVos that the first purpose of education is to create skilled workers for America’s workforce. The Trump-DeVos theory of education contrasts with other purposes of education propounded by educators and philosophers, including the notion that public education is meant to help young people develop into active citizens who can participate and contribute to the democratic process and American society.  In another view, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey once wrote: ‘The educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end.'”

POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma and Michael Stratford report, for example, that, “(T)he plan calls for redirecting funding for the Labor Department’s adult and dislocated worker programs into expanding Pell grants, run by the Education Department, for short-term training programs. It also proposes sending H-1B visa fees that are currently used by the Labor Department for short-term job training programs to the Education Department to make competitive grants to ‘education and business partnerships’ to boost high school science, technology, engineering, and math education.”

Remember that two of the primary functions of the Department of Education are not mentioned in the restructure. Enforcement of civil rights protections for students has already been undermined by Secretary DeVos through staffing and policy changes that weaken investigations. The Title I formula program is the department’s largest grant program, directing federal funding, by formula, to school districts serving concentrations of very poor children.  The purpose is to assist these districts in serving children who bring overwhelming challenges to school. While Title I could not disappear or be reduced without a huge fight in Congress, the fact that it is not emphasized as a key departmental purpose is significant. Researchers have for decades documented that standardized testing, the metric we use to measure school quality, is instead primarily a measure of family and neighborhood economic wellbeing.

Contrast the vision embedded in the proposed government restructure with the vision of Dr. James Comer, a child psychiatrist who led the Yale University Child Study Center for his entire career. In a prophetic assessment twenty years before Donald Trump became president, Comer wrote: “At the core of our culture stands the belief that a life outcome is determined by the individual alone. The fact that this belief is so widely held speaks to the power of the pioneer ethos. But it is a myth. When you need two keys to open a bank box and you only have one, you don’t get in. The individual is one key. The opportunity structure that the society provides is the second.” (Waiting for a Miracle, p. 77)  Comer defines three networks that must be present to support normal human development and, of course, academic success for children: the primary network including family, extended family, friends, and institutions like places of worship; a secondary network including services and opportunities like the workplace, health care, recreation and schools; and a tertiary network including the policymakers at the local regional and federal level as well as business, social, and religious leaders.  Examining our society in 1997, long before the Trump administration and the House Freedom Caucus began attempting to dismantle an already frayed safety net, Comer reported: “(D)ifferences in the opportunity structure created by policies and behaviors in all three networks affect outcomes. Mainstream young people are favored in every way, and this failure to support the development of other young people hurts society. Some who are the products of favorable conditions in all three networks feel they made it on their own, or are more entitled anyway. As the myth of intelligence-and-motivation continues to be passed on from one generation to the next, it becomes more and more difficult to recreate the opportunity structures needed by all.” (Waiting for a Miracle, p. 100)

Today, we must be grateful that education and social service experts on the ground are working tirelessly, despite heartless federal policy, to support our society’s poorest families and children. Writing for the Phi Delta Kappan, David Jacobson describes a growing model being adopted by more and more school districts across the United States—the full-service, wraparound Community School.  Jacobson features model Community Schools in Cincinnati and Oregon’s Multnomah County, along with wraparound early childhood centers in Omaha and Chicago.  All of these are designed to weave medical services, family social service supports, and after-school enrichment into schools or to wrap these services around schools right in the neighborhood. Jacobson explains: “All of the above examples are responses to a persistent set of problems that characterize early childhood and early elementary education and care in the United States. Most low-income children experience inconsistent education quality, gaps in learning and support, and a lack of coordination at each state of development…. Community schools and other wraparound models address the fragmentation that characterizes our education, health, and social service systems in important ways, especially by connecting K-12 students to the noneducational services and supports students and their families need. Head Start is an example of a program that provides comprehensive services for younger children.” Such programs are: “premised on the idea that multifaceted problems require multifaceted responses. Addressing the needs of low-income children requires not only improving teaching and learning in schools and preschools, and not only improving health and social services for young children and their families, but improving education, health, and social services in a coordinated fashion.”

Although the Trump administration cannot impose a restructure of the government without approval by Congress, one must pay attention, nonetheless, to the proposal announced yesterday and even to the meaning of the language in which the proposed restructure is framed—education defined as workforce preparation, for example, and the return of the word “welfare,’ now a pejorative in conservative political circles, to make it easier for politicians to slash funding by the federal government.

What is being proposed lacks compassion for children. The new plan is designed by officials impervious to what is well known about healthy child development. The proposed restructure reflects the kind of heartlessness we’ve been watching as Trump administration officials callously separate babies and toddlers from their parents at the border, lock tiny, bewildered children in closed-Walmart orphanages, or send them on airplanes to social agencies or foster parents in far-off cities.