When Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction, spoke during a panel at the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors Summit late last week, he made his stance on the U.S. Department of Education clear.
“The federal government comes up with a new initiative every few years. They give you some money, and they think they can control states and schools,” Walters said to a crowd of around 650 members of the conservative group on Friday, June 30, at the Philadelphia Marriott. “It’s absurd. It’s ridiculous. We don’t need a federal department of education.”
Applause, cheers, and whistles from the crowd followed.
Calls to eliminate the federal department of education have been commonplace among conservative politicians since the department’s 1980 beginning. But as Republicans in recent years have accused public schools of teaching critical race theory and “gender ideology,” and groups such as Moms for Liberty have grown in influence among the GOP, their arguments to eliminate the department have come to reflect that same rhetoric. That rhetoric was on display as Walters and three other conservative state education chiefs took the stage during the Moms for Liberty summit.
“We have allowed the elites and these labor unions to control the system,” Walters said. “Folks, we have to be aggressive. They are not going to stop. They’ve been at it for 40 years. They have done a really good job. They have built an entire apparatus from the federal government to the local teachers’ union to keep you out of the process.”
The panel with Walters also featured Arkansas education secretary Jacob Oliva, Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr., and South Carolina state superintendent Ellen Weaver. Throughout the panel, the state school chiefs also called for reading instruction to be based on evidence-based methods, criticized the Biden administration for recent Title IX proposals that expand protections for LGBTQ+ students, and called on the Moms for Liberty members to fight “gender ideology” and “critical race theory” in schools.
Walters was the only state schools chief to expressly call for the elimination of the federal Education Department during the panel, but calls to curtail the federal role in education were on display throughout the Moms for Liberty summit, including during appearances by Republican presidential candidates.
“I want to move our education system back to the states,” former President Donald Trump said during his Friday speech at the event. “It’s not like, ‘gee, whiz, we don’t want to screw up what we have.’ What we have is horrible. It doesn’t work. We’re going to leave it all back to the states.”
The increased criticism of the Education Department comes as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has taken a firmer stance against efforts to ban books from school libraries and limit how teachers talk about race, sexuality, and gender. Cardona accused conservative lawmakers and activists of developing “an intentional, toxic disrespect against teachers in public schools” at the National Education Association’s annual representative assembly July 3.
Opposition to Education Department isn’t new
Conservative lawmakers have long tried and failed to eliminate the Education Department. Republican presidential candidates have commonly called for its elimination, and proposals to dissolve it are pending in the current Congress, with at least one of them centering on accusations that the department is complicit in indoctrinating students.
In February, Rep. Barry Moore, R-Ala., introduced a bill that would abolish the department and direct all federal education funding directly to the states.
Republican Reps. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Matt Gaetz and Byron Donalds of Florida, Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia, Eli Crane of Arizona, and Keith Self of Texas are cosponsors. In a statement introducing the bill in February, Moore described the Education Department as “a nest of radical D.C. activities masquerading as educators pushing indoctrination schemes of radical anti-American ideas.”
Another bill, reintroduced in February by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, includes only one line: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2023.” Massie has introduced the bill in each legislative session since 2017.
And presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy said he’ll shut down the department during an interview with Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice at the Moms for Liberty summit.
The federal government has a limited role in education. States and local school boards have the final say on curriculum, teacher salaries, school budgets, and much more. But eliminating the Education Department would have massive consequences for schools. Its elimination would either remove major funding streams from the education system or require new mechanisms to distribute the money. Around 10.5 percent of school funding comes from Federal programs, like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, according to Census data.
Some states rely on federal education funding more than others. More than 19 percent of the education funding in South Dakota and Mississippi came from the federal government in fiscal year 2021, according to the Census data. And more than 2,900 school districts out of more than 13,000, which enroll nearly a quarter of America’s public school students, rely on the federal government for more than 10 percent of their budgets, according to an Education Week analysis.
The end of the education department would also have implications for the enforcement of federal protections enshrined in Title IX and the IDEA, which respectively give all students recourse to respond to sex discrimination, harassment, and assault in schools that receive federal funding; and provide students with disabilities resources for an adequate education.
School chiefs threaten to reject federal funding
It would take an act of Congress to eliminate the department, and the odds of such a proposal passing the current, divided Congress are low. But some state lawmakers and education chiefs have indicated they will do what they can to reject federal funding.
Last month, Walters sent a letter to state lawmakers claiming that the Oklahoma Department of Education will not apply for federal grants that are at odds with “Oklahoma’s values,” according to the Tulsa World. And in his campaign for state superintendent, Walters said he would reject federal funding for the state’s schools, later clarifying that he would only accept money that isn’t attached to “left-wing indoctrination,” according to the Oklahoman.
Last November, Weaver said South Carolina should consider rejecting federal funding if the Biden administration’s proposed overhaul of Title IX passes as it’s written, according to the Post and Courier. Diaz has also joined conservative state chiefs in opposing the proposed Title IX changes.
The Title IX proposal would explicitly protect students from discrimination on the bases of gender identity or sexuality and prohibit categorical bans on transgender youth playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. It has not yet been finalized, but once it is, schools that violate the new rules would risk losing federal funding.
“If you only have half your kids reading on grade level in third grade, which you know is a problem, but you’re worried about pronouns and you’re worried about LGBT guides and all of those things, then we’re not serving our kids,” Diaz said. “That’s exactly where this agenda has taken us.”