The Department of Education’s first seeds were planted in 1866 in a communique issued by the National Association of State and City School Superintendents. The following year Congress established the U.S. Office of Education. It had a staff of six and a budget of $13,000. It’s mission was to collect statistics. From there the idea grew.
As G. Gregory Moo notes, these 19th century petitioners for greater federal involvement in U.S. education, wanted, “what has never been and never can be – federal assistance without federal control.” They wanted Congress to create a bureau “without it being invested with any official control of the school authorities therein…Indeed, the highest value of such a bureau would be its quickening and informing, rather than its authoritative and direct control.”
In 1979, the teachers unions scored a coup with the creation of a cabinet-level agency to set education policy and advance the interests of its members, which includes collective bargaining. For a thorough history read G. Gregory Moo’s book, and Myron Lieberman’s, The Teachers Unions.
A short answer to the question:
Why is the Department in Education in Wisconsin – a state which we might otherwise assume is free to set its own policies on this subject.
Because states and local school districts are intertwined with the National Education Association the Department of Education. That explains the recent two-day summit held by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He’s trying to find a way to bridge the growing labor-management divide in thousands of local school districts. That is, Mr. Duncan is cabinet-secretary-cum-labor negotiator who is going to “do everything [he] can to bring governors to the negotiating table.”
As states are attempting to improve the quality of public education while facing tight budget constraints, school vouchers are gaining publicity as a means of improving education through increased competition while not requiring increased funding.
Voucher programs have been implemented in several cities across the country, generally improving achievement among students who are able to use them. As reported in USA Today:
Vouchers have improved the math and reading of inner-city children from Dayton, Ohio, to Charlotte, N.C., various studies show. The Washington vouchers improved the reading of girls and younger kids by about half a school year, though results for other groups were iffier. Yet opposition is so fierce that few voucher experiments survive past the seedling stage. Florida vouchers were blocked by a party-line vote in the state Supreme Court. In Utah, they were killed by a union-funded anti-voucher campaign.
While critics of voucher programs such as the National Education Association fear that they would reduce the funding and quality of public schools, those who support vouchers assert that by introducing competition into public education, teachers and administrators will have new incentives to improve the level of service without raising costs.
Economist Charles Tiebout elucidated that competition between communities to attract investment has led to greater variation and improved choices for consumers who each have different preferences. Communities’ residents are able to sort themselves into the neighborhoods and cities that are best for them by voting with their feet. The same freedom for parents and children to choose which school to attend might improve the quality of education available generally as well as increase the variety of schooling options available to each child.