President Trump’s proposal to merge the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Labor might sound familiar to Hoosiers.
The education and workforce development rhetoric hearkens back to some of Vice President Mike Pence’s education priorities as Indiana’s chief executive, as well as those of his predecessor and successor.
“This sounds very Indiana,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “This sounds very Gov. (Mitch) Daniels, Gov. Pence, Gov. (Eric) Holcomb-like, in terms of the last 12 to 15 years here in our state.”
It’s not really surprising that Indiana and the federal government again share education policy goals — U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has repeatedly pointed to Indiana’s charter school and private school voucher systems as models for the nation.
Across the country, connections between workforce and K-12 education have been increasingly emphasized, and Indiana has been legislating in this vein for years. As governor, Pence expanded the state’s career and technical education programs, an accomplishment he still touts. It also bears similarities to the efforts of Indiana’s current Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has followed in previous governors’ footsteps by prioritizing workforce development and how it connects to education in his 2018 legislative agenda.
And though some local education advocates cheer the federal push to link K-12 education and workforce, to others, it’s troubling.
When she saw the news of the merger proposal, Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, felt a rush of deja vu: “Oh here we go — and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
When Pence ran for governor in 2012, he said the state was too focused on getting students to college — there was too little effort on getting them up to speed for heading directly into the workforce. There were plenty of jobs, he said, that paid well and didn’t need a four-year degree.
As soon as he got into office, Pence successfully pushed through two bills creating regional works councils and a state career council that would help the state better understand job needs and develop relationships between schools and local employers.
And the career-focused influence has continued even after Pence left office in 2016. The state’s new graduation pathways system, passed last year, redirects the Core 40 diploma’s more academic focus toward one that more equally weighs job-related post-secondary plans.
Wiley said Indiana, under Holcomb, has made even more progress in this arena by consolidating efforts into a workforce cabinet and pushing for an appointed state schools chief. While the state still has a ways to go, she said, it serves as an example, and she applauds the Trump administration for making the proposal.
“What is trying to be done, again, is to figure out how to be more efficient and effective as the federal government, and better serve the customer, be it either the K-12 level student or the adult in terms of workforce training or development,” she said. “Those are admirable goals.”
Meredith, though, said the efforts to make schools a pipeline for the workplace seem short-sighted.
“What is the purpose of K-12 education? Is it to prepare individuals to go into a job that exists right now, or is it to teach them about a love of learning and give them the skills to be able to adapt?” she said. “I would argue that’s what we ought to be doing — giving them creative thinking skills, giving them basic life skills, teaching them how to navigate the world.”
As Chalkbeat has reported, the merger itself likely faces an uphill battle to congressional approval — if it even stands a chance at. So far, efforts to scale back or get rid of the federal education department have failed.