During the recent midterm election, a number of conservative Republican candidates eager to clamp down on what they see as bureaucratic waste took aim at scrapping a familiar target: the 30-year-old U.S. Department of Education.
But if past attempts are any guide—including under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and a House Republican majority in the mid-1990s—a push to abolish the agency as a Cabinet-level department faces steep political and logistical hurdles.
The latest wave of interest in eliminating the department came from candidates in this year’s electoral contests. Among them is Sen.-elect Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who identifies with the tea party movement and its philosophy of a more limited federal role in such areas as the economy and health care.
But even gop Washington veterans sympathetic to those views say that it would be virtually impossible to get rid of the department.
“Those who are clamoring for abolishing the agency are going to get standing ovations at tea party meetings,” said Bob Schaffer, a former congressman from Colorado who in 1996 supported Republican presidential candidate’s Bob Dole’s plan to abolish the department. Mr. Schaffer is now the chairman of the Colorado state board of education.
^ 1867-68 Congress establishes “a Department of Education” under a commissioner, mainly to gather statistics and disseminate information; it is then quickly abolished
1868-69 Office of Education established in the U.S. Department of the Interior
1869-1930 Bureau of Education established, also in the Interior Department
1930-1939 Office of Education reestablished in U.S. Department of the Interior
1939 Office of Education transferred to the Federal Security Agency
1953 Office of Education moved to the newly created U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
1965 Congress passes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funds to help educate disadvantaged students
—Frank Wolfe/Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/National Archives
^ 1965 Congress passes the Higher Education Act, which establishes federal grants, loans, and aid to colleges
1975 President Gerald Ford signs the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, providing funding for students in special education
^ 1980 U.S. Department of Education established under President Jimmy Carter
^ 1981 Newly elected administration of President Ronald Reagan creates plan to dismantle the Education Department
^ 1994 House Republicans, who later become the majority party in Congress, pledge to abolish the Education Department in the “Contract With America”
^ 2001 Congress passes the No Child Left Behind Act, requiring all states to set standards and test their students regularly in math and reading
^ 2009 President Barack Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provides $100 billion for education, an unprecedented increase for the department’s budget
SOURCE: The National Archives, Education Week
But any such effort at this time is “not what I would regard as a practical proposal unless you’ve got a president who agrees and will be working in that direction,” said Mr. Schaffer. “If the [Obama] administration is going to defend this particular mammoth, calcified bureaucracy, then it’s not going to be a fruitful effort.”
Marshall S. Smith, a former deputy education secretary under President Bill Clinton who also served in the department’s non-Cabinet-level predecessor, the Office of Education within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, during the Carter administration, said in an e-mail that such an undertaking would be “an empty gesture designed to pacify the radical arm of the Republican party.”
The statements on this year’s campaign trail may have been as much about the need to scale back the federal role in education as about the department itself, said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who is in line to become chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee when the new Congress convenes in January with a gop majority in the House.
“I regularly hear from parents, teachers, and school leaders frustrated by Washington micromanaging their classrooms,” Rep. Kline
said. “That’s why I and other Republicans are looking for ways to reduce the federal footprint, restore local control, and empower parents. The debate is not just about a cabinet agency, but a broader understanding that education reform does not begin or end in Washington, D.C.” But he has not specifically advocated for dismantling the department.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the current chairman of the education panel, would vehemently oppose any attempt to dismantle the department, said his spokeswoman, Melissa Salmanowitz. Rep. Miller will likely serve as the top Democrat on the committee when the new Congress convenes.
With a discretionary budget of about $64 billion annually, the Education Department oversees a wide swath of programs, including Title I grants to help districts cover the cost of educating disadvantaged students and money to help states educate students with disabilities. It also provides college loans and operates a host of discretionary programs.
That federal funding touches every congressional district, which makes it tough for lawmakers to vote for abolition of the agency, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. “When push comes to shove, when philosophy and ideology compete with dollars, the dollars win out,” he said. Cabinet Status
President Jimmy Carter made creation of a Cabinet-level education department a key piece of his platform in the 1976 presidential campaign. In part because of that promise, he won the first-ever presidential endorsement from the National Education Association, a union that now has 3.2 million members.In fact, many lawmakers serving in Congress when legislation establishing the Education Department was passed worried that the agency would, essentially, be a voice in the federal government for the NEA, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. Mr. Jennings served as an aide to House Democrats on the education committee at the time.
In 1980, when the department was less than a year old, Mr. Reagan, then a Republican presidential candidate, made scrapping the department a centerpiece of his successful campaign.
But, after he took office, a task force of Reagan administration officials charged with determining next steps could not agree on the best way to abolish the agency. At one point, for instance, his secretary of education, Terrel H. Bell, proposed turning the department into a subcabinet, foundation-like agency, similar to the National Science Foundation.
But no proposal ever gained legislative traction. And later, Secretary Bell convened a commission to investigate the state of the nation’s schools, which eventually produced the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk.
The report was an urgent call for expecting more from American students—and was crucial to beating back Republican attacks on the department, said Christopher T. Cross, who spent nearly three decades working on education policy in Washington, including as an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.
A Nation at Risk, which President Reagan ultimately embraced as a call for action, “drove the nail in the heart of the initiative” to kill the department for more than a decade, Mr. Cross said.
But the idea got a second wind in 1995, when Republicans took over both chambers of Congress for the first time in decades. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has since joined up with the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, to push for policies such as performance pay for teachers, called for the abolition of the agency.
“I do not believe we need a federal department of homework checkers,” the then-speaker told the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in 1995.
House Republicans held hearings that same year on separate plans to dismantle the department, including a proposal to combine it with the U.S. Department of Labor. They also considered a plan to replace the bulk of its programs with block grants to be administered by the states. (June 14, 1995.)
That plan was backed by Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who will serve as speaker of the House in the next Congress, but has not been on the record recently advocating for scrapping the department. As education chairman, Mr. Boehner was a key architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002.
Mr. Dole, the former Kansas senator who was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, also ran on eliminating the department, as did another GOP candidate, former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, now the top Republican on the Senate education subcommittee that oversees K-12 policy.
Such proposals may have stirred conservatives, but never caught fire in the mid-1990s with mainstream voters, said Mr. McGuinn of Drew University, who has written extensively about the intersection of education and politics.
President Clinton, who was running for re-election, used gop opposition to the department “very effectively,” he said. He promoted the idea that “it meant [Republicans] were against education in general and that they didn’t care about kids and the future of the country and democracy.”
Mr. Drew said that Republicans tried to make a “nuanced defense”, explaining that they were “for education, [but] want the spending to be at the local level. But that kind of nuance about federalism doesn’t tend to sell too well to voters.”