Last week, Joe Biden joined the bandwagon of Democrats (started by Elizabeth Warren this year) promising to name a public-school teacher to be Secretary of Education if he wins the presidency. It’s an easy commitment to make in front of a teachers’ union audience, and it wouldn’t be all that odd to do it—several past presidents of both parties have named former public-school teachers to the job.
But the promise is another example of a thoroughly bipartisan misconception about the work of the federal education department. Even if they haven’t been former teachers, nearly every education secretary since the Department of Education was created in the Carter years has been someone with expertise or experience in K-12 education—whether as an educator, administrator, reformer, or policymaker. But the Department of Education actually has a lot more say over higher education than primary or secondary schooling, and its work has suffered from the lack of focus on higher ed over the years. If we must have a Department of Education, it could at least be run by someone who knows something about higher education.
The American system of primary and secondary schools is gloriously decentralized. There are about 130,000 K-12 schools in America, about three-quarters of which are public schools. The latter are governed by about 13,000 different school districts across the 50 states. These districts have enormous power over curriculum and staffing decisions, and the states have most of the remaining power over education policy.
The federal role in K-12 education is strongest in circumstances where racial or other discrimination triggers legally-mandated responses. Otherwise, the federal government uses some levers of conditional funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—a Great Society law that has been updated every few years since. Recent updates include the No Child Left Behind Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act. These have given the federal government more leverage over time, but its power is still greatest at the margins. Federal dollars are about 8 percent of K-12 education funding, and the Department of Education doesn’t really shape primary and secondary education policy.
We should all be glad about that. And a teacher who wants to influence education policy would be better advised to run for school board or for the state legislature than to go to Washington.
But unfortunately, the federal Department of Education does play a critical role in setting the direction of American higher education. Here too, its power comes mostly from the leverage created by federal dollars, but that leverage is immense, especially because of the student-loan system. And it has meant that the federal government has played a central role in driving the tuition inflation that plagues higher ed and in creating all manner of policy trouble besides.
Price inflation in higher education has been massively exacerbated by the basic structure of federal policy in this area, which might be best described as simultaneously subsidizing demand and restricting supply.
The subsidization of demand is done through student aid, which has been too open-ended and has risen with tuition, thereby creating upward pressure on costs. This leverage over funds has also given the Department of Education lots of informal power to drive policy through nudges and “suggestions” in a variety of areas. The Obama administration’s notorious “Dear Colleague” letters are a prominent example.
The restriction of supply, meanwhile, has been a function of accreditation, which the incumbent players in American higher education have used to restrict new entrants and new uses of technology. Accreditation is technically a private process, run by a group of NGOs, but because it is the means by which schools become eligible for students with federal loans and grants, the Department of Education has enormous power over it, essentially accrediting the accreditors.
All of this gives the Secretary of Education a lot of opportunities to improve (or to worsen) higher-ed policy—both by working with Congress to change the law and by working directly to change the department’s policies. Higher-ed policy is badly in need of reforms, getting those right could make a huge difference, and the Secretary of Education would be a key figure in making that happen. The Trump administration has taken some useful steps in this direction, but there is lots more to be done.
So a president who wanted to do something useful in education policy would be wise to appoint an education secretary who knows something about higher education, rather than just one who will say nice things about primary and secondary schools.