by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
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. …
… [U]nfortunately, 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.