Some Republicans have beensince President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, when the agency was only about a year old.
Now, with Republican Donald Trump headed to the White House and the GOP still in control of the House and the Senate, Republicans may have their best chance yet to scrap—or at least seriously scale back—the Cabinet-level agency created under President Jimmy Carter.
Trump talked about eliminating the Education Department on the campaign trail or cutting it “way, way down,” but didn’t offer details about how he would do that, or what would happen to key programs if he did downsize.
Still on the Table?
For now, it looks as if this idea remains on the table. Former Florida and Virginia state schools chief Gerard Robinson, who is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute,the day after the election that he expects that the new president will “streamline, at least” the Education Department. (Robinson is serving on the Trump transition team, but spoke only on his own behalf.)
Slimming down—or getting rid of—the department wouldn’t be a slam dunk. Past attempts to eliminate it, including under Reagan and another in the mid-1990s,. Both times, though, the administration and at least one house of Congress were from different parties, which won’t be the case next year.
But even in the current Republican-dominated landscape, abolishing the department would cost Trump and his allies political capital that they might rather spend elsewhere.
“That’s a heavy lift, and there’s some Republicans that may not be comfortable with that,” said Vic Klatt, a former aide to House Republicans on the education committee, who is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government-relations organization in Washington. He thinks such a proposal could get tripped up in the Senate, which generally requires a 60-vote threshold to get past procedural hurdles.
And education advocates would likely fight against getting rid of the department. “We would actively oppose it,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, in an interview. “And I think there is enough of a coalition on Capitol Hill to make opposition to it a rather bipartisan issue.”
What’s more, Klatt said, the agency itself may not be as paramount as the programs that it operates.
“At the end of the day what matters most is not the structure, it’s the programs. I don’t think the new president has given any indication that he’s likely to get rid of the most important programs,” Klatt said, which might include Title I grants for districts or student loans.
Trump and his team may turn first to funneling federal education programs into broad block grants, essentially doubling down on the program consolidation that’s already in the new, said Lindsey Burke, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“There are just dozens of niche programs that the department operates,” she said. “And even though they have not worked well for kids, there is a constituency of adults throughout the country who really agitate to maintain those programs.” The new administration could start with consolidation and block-granting, and then move toward “eliminating a lot of the competitive-grant programs that have accumulated over the years.”
In particular, programs closely associated with President Barack Obama could find themselves on the chopping block early in a Trump administration. An example is the Education Innovation and Research program, or EIR. That’s the successor to the Investing in Innovation program, or i3, which helps school districts scale up and test out promising practices. It’s already slated for elimination in a House spending bill.
Burke also suggested the Trump administration could work with Congress to enact something along the lines of the A-Plus Act, which would allow states to opt out of a slew of federal requirements while still getting federal funds. Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., offered the legislation as an amendment when ESSA passed in 2015. It didn’t make it through the GOP-controlled House, but now the political context has changed.
At least one office within the Education Department could get a makeover under the Trump presidency: the office for civil rights. The OCR has been a hotbed of activity during the Obama administration, with series of guidance and investigations aimed at ensuring that school districts meet the needs of children from historically disadvantaged groups.
Robinson said Trump and his team would likely significantly curtail the office’s role when it comes to state and local policies, while ensuring that students rights’ are not “trampled on.”
If the OCR’s role does shift in the Trump administration, local civil rights organizations may need to step up, said Daria Hall, the interim vice president for government affairs at the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization.
“The one thing that’s clear is that the work of state and local equity advocates is now even more important,” she said.
Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Education Department May Again Find Itself in GOP Cross Hairs