In defense of the Department of Education

Given, this quote is clearly directed toward K-12 education and, as president of the United States Student Association (USSA), I am concerned with college students. However, the implications of questioning our Education Department are dire for higher education as well and should be made known before this article fades into the endless storage file of election year candidate editorials.

First, I would love to know where Rep. Kline secured the evidence that people around the country are second guessing our Education Department.  If it’s derived from anecdotes collected while campaigning around the 2nd Congressional District of Minnesota, I would argue that isn’t a great cross-section of America.  I think it’s safe to say most Americans directly impacted by the rising cost of college favor programs such as the Pell Grant.

Second, the Department of Education doesn’t “manage classrooms;" it provides basic standards states must meet to ensure quality education for their students.  It challenges state governments to reach beyond their geographic limitations and legislate in the greater interest of our posterity.  Rep. Kline is making Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seem like a George Orwell character when he is, in fact, simply overseeing the implementation of standards set to promote the educational quality of our country.  When state governments fail to summon the political courage necessary to make prudent budgetary decisions and invest in higher education, it’s the federal government that steps in to ensure the doors of our nation’s colleges and universities aren’t closed on low-income students.  During the recession, when more than 30 states slashed higher education funding, President Obama signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act into law, making the greatest higher education investment in American history.

Third, Rep. Kline sounds the politically ubiquitous trumpet of “more jobs!” while at the same time calling for less federal action in education.  Yet, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recently found that by 2018, the U.S. will need 22 million new workers with college degrees, but will be 3 million postsecondary degrees and 4.7 million postsecondary certificates short of meeting this goal.  This shortage amounts to a 300,000 college graduate deficit every year between 2008 and 2018 unless drastic investments in college access and affordability are made by both the federal and state governments.  As stated above, more than 30 states cut their higher education budgets last year and more than 30 plan on doing it again this year, meaning the federal government will once again have to take the lead in making college affordable and accessible.  Soon-to-be Chair Kline does not seem to understand the gravity of the situation nor recognize the opportunity he has as chair of the Education and Labor Committee to set an example in fiscal prudence.

Now is not the time for campaign-style talk and stubborn legislating.  The election is over, it’s time to get serious.  Questioning federal powers may get someone re-elected in a conservative district, but USSA expects more than partisan bickering when it comes to crafting legislation from our education leaders in Congress.  I am not suggesting that the status quo in federal higher education policy is adequate.  Student aid is too reliant on loans instead of grants, undocumented students are still barred from financial aid and in-state tuition, for-profit colleges continue to exploit low-income students and federal higher education programs are continually underfunded.  Yet these realities make it even more important for Rep. Kline to put aside this kind of shallow messaging and engage in the rolled-up sleeves governing it will take to ensure the U.S. once again becomes a global leader in education.

Lindsay McCluskey is the United States Student Association president.