Earlier this week a video surfaced of Miguel Cardona, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, making a rather uneducated gaffe.
During remarks at the 2023 Winter Meeting for the Western Governors’ Association in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Secretary Cardona was talking about “technical assistance” that the federal government might offer states in the realm of education. And to make his point, he said “I think it was President Reagan who said, ‘We’re from the government. We’re here to help.'”
If Secretary Cardona had given this answer on an American history test, he would have failed — spectacularly.
Because the actual quote from President Reagan is as follows:
“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Delivered at a 1986 press conference, Reagan’s original quote was a critique of government overreach and incompetence. It reflected his belief in limited government and the idea that government intervention often does more harm than good. By contrast, Cardona’s version of the quote seems to suggest that the government is a reliable source of help, which is the exact opposite of what Reagan intended.
Mollie Hemingway, editor at The Federalist, wrote, “I actually find it chef’s kiss perfect that the Education Secretary is this ignorant of history.”
And U.S. Rep. Eric Burlson, R-Mo., remarked, “Miguel Cardona is the exact person Reagan warned us about.”
To be clear, Secretary Cardona’s misquote is not just a simple mistake; it is indicative of his overall tenure at the Department of Education. There have been several instances where Cardona’s leadership has been called into question. For example, lawmakers and Cardona have clashed over how to tackle a range of culture war issues.
ABC News reported that, at a congressional hearing earlier this year, “When Rep. Erin Houchin, R-Ind., asked whether transgender athletes undressing in women’s bathrooms constitutes sexual harassment, Cardona said it was a ‘concern’ but stated his belief that ‘transgender girls should have access to all the experiences that public schools provide.’” His handling of pandemic-era vaccine mandates for children and prolonged school closures across the state of California has also been criticized.
Moreover, Cardona’s misinterpretation of Reagan’s quote is emblematic of the problems that conservatives have long warned about. Despite increased federal spending on education over the last 50 years, test scores have remained stagnant. This suggests that throwing money at the problem — and the government showing up to “help” — is not the solution to the issues plaguing American public schools. Given that the Department of Education is failing so miserably in its mission to improve educational outcomes, we should all be asking if that should have been its mission in the first place. Or even better — why do we need a federal Department of Education at all?
In fact, some conservatives have called for the entire department to be shut down. At a recent Republican primary debate, Vivek Ramaswamy said, “Let’s shut down the head of the snake, the Department of Education. Take that $80 billion, put it in the hands of parents across this country.”
The Hill explained that “Conservatives see the department, which has more than 4,400 employees and in its current form dates back to 1979 after first being established in 1867, as a prime example of Washington’s meddling in Americans’ lives.”
Other conservatives argue that education is a local issue that should be handled by states and local communities, not the federal government. The Department of Education, they contend, is an example of government overreach and inefficiency.
Given what’s being pushed in public schools these days, they’re not wrong.
And given that the Secretary of Education himself just put President Reagan’s quote through the woodchipper and made it mean the exact opposite of what Reagan originally meant…well, again—they’re not wrong.
In conclusion, Cardona’s misquote of Reagan’s famous line is more than just a gaffe. It is a perfect illustration of the problems inherent in the Department of Education and a stark reminder of the dangers of government thinking they’re the answer to everything instead of the problem. As Reagan warned us: The nine most terrifying words in the English language are indeed, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
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