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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Guidance counselor Nicole Walters reads instructions for a make-up NECAP test at the Elm Street Middle School Thursday, October 6, 2011. NECAP testing is required as part of the federal No Child Left Behind act.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Guidance counselor Nicole Walters gives a make-up NECAP test to students at the Elm Street Middle School Thursday, October 6, 2011. Shown in the photo is Tulio Santana. NECAP testing is required as part of the federal No Child Left Behind act.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Guidance counselor Nicole Walters gives a make-up NECAP test to students at the Elm Street Middle School Thursday, October 6, 2011. NECAP testing is required as part of the federal No Child Left Behind act.
Thursday, October 13, 2011

USDOE a target among Republican contenders

Michael Brindley

When asked for their ideas on ways to improve education in America, nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates come back with the same response: take the federal government out of the equation.

“I think you need very profound reform of education at the state level. You need to dramatically shrink the federal Department of Education, get rid of virtually all of its regulations,” former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said during the Fox News-Google debate last month.

“If you care about your children, you’ll get the federal government out of the business of educating our kids,” Texas Congressman Ron Paul added during the same debate.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann also chimed in, pledging to “pass the mother of all repeal bills on education.”

“I would take the entire federal education law, repeal it,” Bachmann said. “Then I would go over to the Department of Education, I’d turn off the lights, I would lock the door and I would send all the money back to the states and localities.”

Closing the United States Department of Education is not a fresh idea. It has been a Republican campaign talking point since it was opened under the Jimmy Carter administration in 1979. Ronald Reagan promised to close it, but never did. And it isn’t a lock to happen if a Republican is elected, as it would take the support of Congress to shut it down.

However, given the anti-government ideals fueling much of the dialogue during the campaign season, the tone of the discussion surrounding the future of education has some in the field concerned.

Mary Heath, dean of the education department at Southern New Hampshire University, believes it would be a step back for the nation to have no national direction when it comes to education. Other nations that are moving past the United States in global competitiveness have a centralized education system, she said.

“It sends the message that education is not important when you don’t have a Department of Education,” said Heath, formerly the New Hampshire deputy commissioner of education. “We live in a global society. As a country, we need to have some consistent learning benchmarks for students.”

While education shouldn’t be completely controlled at the federal level, there should be a national department guiding states, she said. No Child Left Behind wasn’t perfect, but Heath said it forced districts and states to be accountable for the performance of all students, she said.

“I would hate to see that lost,” she said. “By having some federal oversight of what happens in states, there’s an accountability to that. It keeps us balanced.”

Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad agreed with Heath, saying it would be doing students across the country a disservice. The district relies heavily on federal funding for schools with low-income students and for professional development and there would need to be some mechanism for dispersing those funds, he said.

Some see the merits in the proposal to de-nationalize education. Nashua Board of Education member David Murotake, a Paul supporter, said eliminating the Department of Education makes sense. It would save money and would put the funding and decisions on how to spend money back at the local level, he said.

As a school board member, Murotake has seen first-hand the regulations forced upon the Nashua School District federal laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While the law is well meaning, the federal government has failed to fund its share, Murotake said, forcing districts to scrap other programs to make up the difference locally.

“Now we’re between a rock and a hard place. It forces us to do things like strip funding from other areas such as gifted and talented education,” Murotake said. “This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing. It’s about local control.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been less clear about his position on the matter. While calling for closing the department during his Senate run in 1994, Romney has since renounced that position, saying now that the department has a role. While praising the efforts of “Race to the Top” and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Romney has also said during this campaign season that decisions about education should be left to the states.

Romney has pledged to “stand up to the national teachers unions.”

“All the talk about we need smaller classroom size, look that’s promoted by the teachers unions to hire more teachers. We looked at what drives good education in our state, what we found is the best thing for education is great teachers,” Romney said during the Fox News/Google debate.

As governor of Texas, Rick Perry led the charge against the federal “Race to the Top” program, putting the state in the vast minority, as nearly all other states, regardless of political leadership, applied for the federal funding that supported reforming teacher evaluations and boosting charter schools.

John Moody, an education professor at Rivier College and former superintendent, said that while the Department of Education has a role, recent attempts to pit states against each other as a means for enacting reforms were inappropriate and intrusive.

“My experience is that those kinds of initiatives are more politically motivated than motivated by education,” he said.

The Department of Education’s involvement should be as minimal, providing funding in an equitable way to states to level the playing field for students, Moody said.

Voters who want to learn more about where the candidates stand on education are out of luck, unfortunately.

Of the eight candidates to take part in this week’s debate at Dartmouth College, only one has a page on his campaign Web site dedicated to his positions on the education.

On his site, businessman Herman Cain pledges to “unbundle education from the federal government down to the local level.”

“A critical component of improving education in our country is to decentralize the federal government’s control over it,” Cain writes on his site.

Paul doesn’t tackle public education on his site, but does pledge to being a champion for home schooling, stating that “returning control of education to parents and teachers on the local level” is the centerpiece of his education agenda.

“No nation can remain free when the state has greater influence over the knowledge and values transmitted to children than the family does,” Paul states on his site.

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or Follow Brindley on Twitter (@Telegraph_MikeB).