As America’s kids get used to school again, American education spending and policies are under attack.

Tea party-backed candidates around the country, particularly in the West, are dredging up the old GOP idea to shut down the Department of Education.

Quick history lesson: President Ronald Reagan tried to eliminate it in 1980. The Republican platform called for its elimination as late as 1996.But then the idea pretty much disappeared, unless you count constant support from radical figures like talk-radio host Glenn Beck.

That is, until this year. Now, many Republican nominees for U.S. Senate are stumping for the idea.

Ken Buck, the surprise Republican nominee in Colorado’s Senate race, is attacking federal involvement in education. He says America should “immediately flip the switch” on the Education Department.

Elsewhere, GOP Senate candidates Rand Paul (Kentucky), Joe Miller (Alaska), and Sharron Angle (Nevada) have done the same.

This trend–and certainly its ramifications–has largely escaped the notice of the news media. Yet, scrapping the Education Department would constitute a major policy transformation. The United States has had an education agency or department for more than 140 years.

The New York Times, for example, has reported on Paul’s views of the Education Department, but if I were a teacher, I’d have to give the Times‘ wider coverage of this issue an “F,” unless its dog ate that homework assignment. Our nation’s newspaper or record hasn’t run any articles connecting the controversial Kentuckian’s views to other candidates and exploring this serious issue in more depth.

That’s indefensible. If you look more deeply at the “let’s abolish the Education Department,” sound bite, you’ll find a broad anti-government attack that’s gaining serious steam at the local level that deserves national attention.

Reporters need to clarify for voters what the Education Department does. It employs about 5,000 people and runs a wide variety of education programs that its detractors never mention in stump speeches, including education research, grant-making, and job training.

Its research focuses on innovative ideas, such as cost-effective testing and student-data tracking, which are refined and evaluated through indispensible grants. The Education Department provides a clearinghouse for new ideas that can spread throughout the country.

Federal support for primary and secondary schools, and for coordination of national education programs, is needed now, perhaps more than ever, as school budgets are being slashed around the country.

Ditto with the department’s job-training functions. Unemployment is at its highest level in a generation. Millions of jobless workers will probably need new training to find jobs in new industries. We need to increase, not cut, the $8 billion in job-training funds from the Department of Education.

Almost everyone agrees that we owe it to our kids to give them a first-class education and that America will lose its competitive edge unless t our schools are at least as good as those of our economic competitors.

But we seem to shrug at the constant flow of statistics about the decline of America’s education system and its slide compared to education systems in industrialized nations abroad. The depressing statistics about American education keep coming, and we hear politicians complain. But how does that square with cutting federal dollars for our kids?

Reporters owe it to us to flesh out what tea party candidates want to achieve by abolishing the Department of Education. Our future is at stake.

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Jason Salzman

A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is Board Chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and author of Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits.

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