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Throwback: When a New Administration Tried to Dismantle the Ed. Dept.

By Alyson Klein — September 07, 2016 2 min read
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If Donald Trump, the real-estate mogul turned GOP nominee, is elected president we might see a push to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.

If that happens, it wouldn’t be the first time an incoming administration set its sights on getting rid of 400 Maryland Ave.

Thirty-five years ago this week, in its very first issue, Education Week published details of a tightly guarded memo, written by U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, that concluded that the “Federal Government does not have responsibility for education.” (Bell was GOP President Ronald Reagan’s first education secretary.)

The memo, which came out when Reagan had been in office less than a year, proposed a big shift of authority over programs, regulations, and financial management back to states. And it called for transferring some of the Education Department’s functions to other agencies.

For instance, the memo suggested, the U.S. Treasury could take over the Pell Grant program.

The goal: to reverse a 25-year “sea change in the relations of government and education” that has resulted in “an overly intrusive federal role.”

Those sentiments would be music to the ears of a potential Trump administration ... maybe.

Trump, who hasn’t sketched out a comprehensive plan on K-12 education, has said he’d like to eliminate the Education Department, or at least “cut it way, way down.” (More on his education positions, and how they stack up against those of his his rival, Hillary Clinton’s, here.) For what it’s worth, he’s also said that education is one of the three most important functions of the federal


That lack of clarity hasn’t stopped Clinton’s allies, from using the Republican contender’s anti-Education Department pitch against him. The Center for American Progress Action Fund, which is affiliated with a think tank close to the Obama administration, outlined a sort of worst-case scenario of what getting rid of the department might mean.

Its analysis, which assumes that none of the department’s programs or responsibilities would wind up on other agencies’ plates, warns that 490,000 teaching positions could be eliminated, for example.

For the record, though, it’s really, really hard to get rid of the Education Department. Numerous attemps have been made, to no avail.

Back in 1981, for example, Bell’s memo was sent to the White House, stirred up some controversy ... but never came to fruition.