On Education Consolidation
The Missouri Senate has given initial approval for a proposal by Gov. Jay Nixon to consolidate the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Department of Higher Education. Approaching the issue purely as a matter of spending, this looks like an obvious move. With one department, some of the redundant agencies and services can be rolled into one capable of doing the same work for less money. However, the effect that such a change would have on educational outcomes is far more ambiguous.
Once they are a single department, the management styles of the old departments will influence each other. No doubt the influence will flow in both directions, but ultimately either higher education will end up looking more like elementary and secondary education, even if only on the margin, or vice versa. I hope it will be the latter, because higher education gives far more autonomy to individual schools, instructors, and ultimately students, which I believe is one of the reasons that — for all its problems — the American higher education system remains highly touted.
That said, I fear DESE’s influence will win out. It is the far larger department, with a 2010 appropriation of more than $5.4 billion compared to Higher Education’s $1.3 billion. This will probably mean far more micromanagement of college curricula and a greater emphasis on pedagogy compared to content. That’s simply how DESE officials think; they create a statewide standard to make classes nice and formulaic. If this plan is implemented, I fully expect that within a decade there will be state-mandated standards for common courses (e.g., western civilization, macroeconomics, chemistry, etc.) similar to the Class Level Expectations (CLEs) in high school classes. Missouri will have a “seamless” education system, as one legislator describes it, but at the expense of the independence of our public universities.