In June, the Trump administration issued a proposal to merge the Department of Education with the Department of Labor, creating, in their place, a single agency called the Department of Education and the Workforce (DEW). The proposal seems to have little chance of coming to fruition: the Senate advanced a funding bill earlier this month for the Department of Education that rejected the administration’s proposal. The proposal, however, is still on the table. What does the administration intend with it?

The proposal’s stated purpose would be to enable closer alignment of education interests in the United States with the needs of the American workforce. The proposal states, “ED [the Department of Education] and DOL [the Department of Labor] share a common goal of preparing Americans for success in a globally competitive world through family-sustaining careers.” The administration’s argument goes thus: that the two agencies operate in “silos,” and that this reorganization would “allow the Federal Government to address the educational and skill needs of American students and workers in a coordinated way, eliminating duplication of effort between the two agencies and maximizing the effectiveness of skill-building efforts.” Secretary DeVos, in praising the proposal, noted, “Artificial barriers between education and workforce programs have existed for far too long. We must reform our 20th century federal agencies to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

If made into law, this proposal would narrow the federal objective in education to one of labor production, thereby undermining federal efforts to promote equity for traditionally marginalized and underserved populations.

While this argument’s aims of reducing redundancy and boosting our career success seem well-intentioned, and relatively non-partisan, its shaky reasoning tells a very different story about the proposal’s goals. Most conspicuous, as this commentary will reveal, is that the argument conflicts with the following: the two departments aren’t siloed off from each other. In fact, currently they actively collaborate, and Congress has taken a number of actions to reduce redundancy of programs. Rather, it would seem that the Trump administration and Secretary DeVos have something else in mind, something in line with their repeatedly signaled intentions—through public statements, actions, and the president’s proposed budgets—to eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, the federal role in education, including the department’s historic mission in enforcing civil rights in education. If made into law, this proposal would narrow the federal objective in education to one of labor production, thereby undermining federal efforts to promote equity for traditionally marginalized and underserved populations.

The Purpose of the Federal Role in Education

The debate over the federal role in education is not new. However, there has been a long-standing acknowledgement that the federal government, generally, has an interest in a well-educated nation. Over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson stated, “I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of…liberty.” The federal involvement in education over time has been rooted in the notion that it is beneficial to our nation that all of America’s children be afforded an education and the opportunities it offers. Training workers for jobs would clearly be a benefit of a good education system, but not its sole purpose.

As public schools developed locally across the country, the federal involvement in education was minimal largely because of the legal argument that education, not being specified in the Constitution, should be left to the states. To that effect, when the federal government first created an Office of Education in the mid-1800s, its purpose was simply to collect data on the nation’s schools, and not to administrate.

the federal government has clearly established its role in education thus: as a partner to help promote equity for historically underserved students in our nation’s schools.

However, this changed in the mid-1900s, when it became of national concern that not all of America’s children were benefiting from the locally developed systems. In particular, the public became more aware of and concerned by the inequities poor and minority children faced in health care and education. Protests, media attention, and ultimately the courts heightened the attention to these issues. For instance, several prominent court cases challenged whether states were providing sufficient educational opportunity to all students. Using the requirements of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Constitution, many courts found state education systems failing. In the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954),the Supreme Court noted in their unanimous ruling that, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Shortly after the Brown decision, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty significantly altered the federal government’s role in education. During that time, Congress established in law ongoing partnerships with states, universities, school districts, and other agencies to address and support education. The goal of these laws were to assist states and localities in rectifying the inequitable access to education for low-income and minority children across the country. In 1965 alone, Congress passed the Head Start Act, to address health and learning disparities for low-income children and help their parents gain parenting and job skills; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), to provide local school districts with additional funding to meet the needs of students from low-income families; and, to help increase access to higher education, the Higher Education Act. During the signing of the latter, President Johnson remarked, “History will forever record that this session—the first session of the 89th Congress—did more for the wonderful cause of education in America than all the previous 176 regular sessions of Congress did, put together. I doubt that any future Congress will ever erect a prouder monument for future generations.”

Building on this push for greater involvement, the ensuing decade saw an influx of laws to address the inequities in education for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. The Bilingual Education Act of 1967 (now embedded in Title III of Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and further expanded by the decision in Lau v. Nichols highlighted the inequities in education experienced by students with limited English proficiency. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) explicitly directed the federal government to address and support, through funding, the academic needs of students with disabilities. Through these efforts and others, the federal government has clearly established its role in education thus: as a partner to help promote equity for historically underserved students in our nation’s schools.

The Birth of the Department of Education

In response to this more defined federal role and commitment in the nation’s education systems, Congress passed the Department of Education Organization Act in 1979 with bipartisan support. The act established of the department as a standalone agency, which was seen as critical to more effectively and efficiently supports states in implementing the federal laws and to symbolically acknowledge the importance of education at the national level. With the agency also came a cabinet-level position intended to help lead important conversations about education across the country. Jimmy Carter noted at the signing of the law, “If our Nation is to meet the great challenges of the 1980’s, we need a full-time commitment to education at every level of government—Federal, State, and local.”

It has been nearly forty years since the law’s passage, and the top purpose—“to strengthen the Federal commitment to ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual”—remains as critically important as ever. The department carries out this purpose as a partner supporting states and school districts, teachers and students, from birth through adulthood, by carrying out critical programs promoting equity, enforcing civil rights laws, and supporting equity-driven research.

Despite recent partisan calls to dismantle the agency, the Department of Education and the education policies it has been authorized by law to carry out have maintained bipartisan support in Congress. In fact, though the Trump administration proposed cutting the federal education discretionary budget (excluding Pell grants) to $40.5 billion for fiscal year 2018, Congress increased the funding by nearly 6 percent to $48 billion. Nearly two-thirds of the budget is dedicated to implementing programs to support low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, and other disadvantaged students. And looking forward, based on the new funding bill passed out of the House Committee responsible for funding the Department’s activities, and its Senate counterpart, the department will likely see another increase in its funding for the new fiscal year.

Education and Labor Work Already Together

It is true there is a clear link between education and jobs, and past administrations have pushed policies to ensure that students graduating are prepared to succeed in the workforce. In fact, during the Obama administration, the Department of Education had as its mission “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” With this clear reference to economic competency—”global competitiveness”—and a focused intention on measuring the department’s success in carrying out this mission, the Obama administration recognized the inherent alignment between education and workforce needs. Significantly, it included goals for ensuring all students received a college and/or career-ready education in the reauthorization of ESEA (the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015), and sought to align education and workforce supports through the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (passed in 2014).

Acknowledging their distinct but aligned missions, the two departments have worked collaboratively on a number of grants to support education and workforce priorities, such as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Program (TAACCCT) and the Youth CareerConnect program. These programs were designed in tandem by the Departments of Education and Labor and underscore the value of having these two agencies engaged in initiatives where their missions do align. The TAACCCT program provided grants for post-secondary education institutions to design education and skills based training programs for students in the community that align with the needs of the local emerging job markets. The Youth CareerConnect program used H1B fees collected by the Department of Labor to support the redesign of high schools that would enable students to experience a learning community focused on workforce preparation and readiness.

the Departments of Education and Labor are far from the only federal departments to collaborate on shared missions, and without any discussion of combining the departments to do so.

Another example is the most recent reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act, which was signed by President Trump this summer. In the last two iterations of this law, there was a strong emphasis on ensuring that its program goals are connected to the program goals of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which is housed at the Department of Labor. The CTE program, which is carried out by the Department of Education, provides funding for workforce readiness and workforce development to support youth in schools as they transition from high school to post-secondary education and career. The WIOA program targets the workforce development needs of adults and in- and out-of-school youth to help them build the skills that will help them secure work. These programs continue to receive bipartisan support in Congress and are recognized as necessary components of our nation’s education and workforce policy.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Departments of Education and Labor are far from the only federal departments to collaborate on shared missions, and without any discussion of combining the departments to do so. For instance, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education have collaborated on efforts in early childhood education, and the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have collaborated on efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline.

What Is This Merger Really About?

The Trump administration may see the departments’ joint ventures as benefiting under their proposed merger. However, there are far more disadvantages than benefits that would result from it, harms that are abundantly clear: a new DEW would minimize and undermine current critical functions of the Department of Education.

For starters, the country would lose a cabinet-level adviser to the president, whose role has been to advocate for improving and supporting education across the country. Although the current secretary of education has been surrounded by controversy, past education secretaries have generally been confirmed with bipartisan support to lead national conversations that improve the system of pubic education and the opportunity it offers.

Equally concerning would be the deemphasis of civil rights enforcement as a mission of the Department of Education. The department is bestowed with an unequivocal charge to protect and enforce these civil rights. A component of the merger proposal will lump the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education—which began as the department desegregation enforcer and now enforces civil rights Laws by investigating complaints, issuing guidance to practitioners, and collecting data—into a broader multi-purpose “Enforcement” office. The new “Enforcement” office at DEW would be expected to cover the responsibilities of OCR as well as all the responsibilities of worker protection offices current at the Department of Labor (like the Wage and hour Division and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration). Proposing this DEW enforcement office reveals a critical misunderstanding of the role of civil rights enforcement at the department. Such an attack on civil rights in education is not new during this administration. Since Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the Secretary of Education, the department has reversed guidance that offered protections to victims of sexual harassment and assault and transgender students, as well as rescinding guidance on race-conscious college admission policies. The Trump administration has also changed the way it investigates claims of discrimination in schools and has threatened to weaken guidance on school discipline policy.

The Department of Education’s long-standing history as a civil rights agency, partner to states and school districts, and as an important tool for advancing college and career readiness for youth and adults, is fully dismissed in this merger proposal.

Catherine Lhamon, former assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights during the second term of the Obama administration, expressed her concern about the Trump administration’s unchecked retreat on civil rights in her testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce this summer, which took place on the sixty-fourth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s pathbreaking decision in Brown v. Bd of Education:

I urge this Committee to recognize the crisis moment at which the nation now teeters with respect to civil rights in education and to use its oversight authority to examine urgent topics such as the U.S. Department of Education’s satisfaction of the solemn charge Congress has given it to safeguard equity for students.

These overt attacks on civil rights by the Trump administration have been met with strong resistance by education stakeholders. New litigation, and even entire civil rights organizations, whose mission it is to stop these rollbacks are announced with regularity as the threats to civil rights take shape.

Protecting Equity in Education Is Bipartisan

The Department of Education’s long-standing history as a civil rights agency, partner to states and school districts, and as an important tool for advancing college and career readiness for youth and adults, is fully dismissed in this merger proposal. And even more disturbing, the Trump proposal to merge the departments evinces a lackluster, and unequal, vision for the future of education, as well as of the value education for our country’s citizenry. One hundred years ago, there were other voices pushing back against the idea that the purpose of education was a means to increase labor production. Philosopher and educator John Dewey wrote, “There is danger that vocational education will be interpreted…as a means of securing technical efficiency and specialized future pursuits. Education would then become an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society, instead of operating as a means of its transformation.” To better transform society, Dewey said, education should ensure that “every person shall be occupied with something which makes the lives of others better worth living, and which accordingly makes the ties which bind persons together more perceptible—which breaks down the barriers of distance between them.”

Return to 2018, where this spring two former secretaries of education, Margaret Spelling and Arne Duncan, from two opposing administrations, decried the lack of urgency and political will in education leadership in an op-ed in the Washington Post. In it, they wrote, ”Education is what makes America the country it is. An educated populace, versed in civics, trained to reason and empowered to act is what safeguards our democracy. Equitable access to education — our greatest force for economic mobility, economic growth and a level playing field for all — is what underwrites the American meritocracy.”

Because it will take action by both the House and the Senate to make this proposal a reality, there is little likelihood that such a merger will happen. The proposal has received lackluster support from members of Congress so far. However, in a time when our civil rights are being continually compromised, it is essential that we recognize the critical link between education and the preservation of a just democracy. The attacks on the role of the federal government in education are not new; nor are the current administration’s efforts to diminish the department’s mission to protect civil rights for all students. Maintaining our commitment to a federal role in education means safeguarding the role of education in advancing equality of opportunity for the generations to come.