Commentary: GOP's rush to cut federal agencies is flawed

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

It’s not the verbal stumbles that should give voters pause about Rick Perry.

What we should fear is that he or one of his GOP cohorts should be given the chance to swing the wrecking ball at federal agencies in the way the Texas governor suggested during the most recent Republican candidates’ debate in Michigan.

Perry’s brain freeze became an instant YouTube classic, adding to the ample evidence that debating is definitely not Gov. Perry’s strong suit.

“I will tell you: It’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone,” Perry said, speaking of the day he takes over the Oval Office. “Commerce, Education and the — what’s the third one there? Let’s see.”

Then, dead air. So embarrassing.

But did you note how quickly his fellow presidential candidates chimed in to aid Perry in his moment of cerebral breakdown? It wasn’t just because they felt his pain.

Why not five? asked Ron Paul.

“The EPA?” offered Mitt Romney, as Perry hemmed and hawed.

What Perry was struggling to articulate was standard conservative demonology about big government. It’s a sentiment all Republican candidates must pay lip service to — and that many genuinely actually believe. The idea is not to target programs and projects and offices that are wasteful, ineffective or counterproductive. It is to hack away whole departments. Chop off a limb to cure a hangnail.

Forgive me, but I’m leery of the motives.

Consider the Department of Education, a favorite Republican target ever since it became a cabinet-level department under President Jimmy Carter. (The federal government’s interest in the education of children is hardly a radical new concept. It has been involved in education policy making since 1867.)

Conservatives accuse the Department of Education of infringing on state’s rights, of being unconstitutional, and of generally exerting a baleful influence on children.

Taken straight from the department’s website, here is a synopsis of what it does: “The mission of the Department of Education is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

Horrifying, right?

Of course, most of the control of public education — from setting curricula to funding operations — remains at the state and local level, which does much to explain the glaring inequities in the system as a whole across the country. And let’s not forget that “state’s rights” was the rallying cry of those who have throughout history sought to keep certain Americans uneducated or in substandard schools. Among the duties of the department is enforcing federal laws on discrimination within public K-12 systems.

Then there is the complaint that public education is failing our children, a tragedy for which the Department of Education is somehow to blame. A favorite argument for its inefficacy is that test scores haven’t improved remarkably since its founding.

Guess who accumulates those data? The Department of Education. It is charged with conducting research, in addition to its more prominent roles in establishing policy and monitoring the use of federal dollars given to public schools.

Underachieving schools, highly concentrated in cities, are a huge concern. However, that’s not what I hear the GOP candidates discussing.

Without the federal government, these schools would not have Head Start, free lunches, and many other programs that keep poor students from falling way behind their peers. Moreover, only a federal department can set national standards that can get the whole nation moving forward. Think of the G.I. Bill and the education policy response to Sputnik in the 1950s. These were highly successful federal initiatives.

I would certainly not argue that federal education policy has been altogether wise and effective. No Child Left Behind is a flawed initiative — and deserves scrutiny and overhaul. Likewise, our federal policy could do a lot better at emulating the education systems of other nations — our competitors in the global economy — that have succeeded at providing excellent schooling for all their citizens. There is nothing sinister about the federal government establishing national curriculum standards and seeking to make them work. There is something deeply suspect about a party that prefers not to even try.

“This campaign is about ideas,” Mr. Perry said in interviews following his horrible debate performance. “It’s not about who’s the slickest debater or whether anyone’s made a mistake or not. We’re all going to make mistakes.”

He’s right. And the biggest mistake this GOP panel keeps making is promoting the simplistic notion that the best way to make federal departments effective is to make them extinct.

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