Bachmann: Why do we need a Department of Education, anyway?

CNN’s Political Ticker isolates this element of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s reliably conservative responses at Sen. Jim DeMint’s political forum in South Carolina today, making it both a headline and lead paragraph:

Painting herself as a “constitutional conservative” Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann told Sen. Jim DeMint’s forum Monday that if elected president she would look to get rid of the Department of Education, among other things.

“Because the Constitution does not specifically enumerate nor does it give to the federal government the role and duty to superintend over education that historically has been held by the parents and by local communities and by state governments,” she said, responding to a question by DeMint, a popular figure among the tea party movement.

The not-so-subtle implication of PT’s prominent placement of this Bachmann statement is that it’s obviously extreme. You know those crazy “constitutional conservatives”! But is it? Abolishing the Department of Education might sound like an ultra-conservative pipe dream — and anything but advisable in the Information Age, when education is key to global competitiveness — but, perhaps, just perhaps, Bachmann has a point.

In the first place, she’s right about the Constitution. But, in the second, does the federal government actually do a better job of educating our children than would state or local governments? Naturally, questions of right and equity enter in. It is, after all, commonly accepted that children have the right to an equal education (although even that could be debated). But as regards efficacy, it’s pretty clear flexibility and freedom to address the needs of individual children enhances education.

Please don’t interpret this as an endorsement of Bachmann’s view; I’m still forming my opinions on education policy. It is, rather, a defense of the debate. The purpose and prowess of the Ed Department ought to be analyzed. And the agency, no less than any other budget-straining bit of the bureaucracy, ought to be held accountable.

This all brings me back to why I love Bachmann as a presidential candidate (if not necessarily as the GOP nominee or actual president): She says what needs to be said to move the public dialogue in a productive direction. Sometimes, she does that by simply speaking truth. Sometimes, as now, she does it by offering up views that can then be debated, discussed, shaped and molded into a more palatable — yet-ever-so-slightly-more-conservative — position in the immediate term — while leaving the possibility of her so-called “extreme” solutions open in the long term.

Update: Just wanted to clarify that Bachmann is “right about the Constitution” insofar as she says that the Constitution does not explicitly enumerate education as among the responsibilities of the federal government. I do not think the Ed Department is unconstitutional — but neither is it constitutionally mandated, leaving the people with the option of determining whether education is best directed at the federal or state level.