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Trump Might Want to Scrap the Education Department; How Doable Is That?

By Alyson Klein — November 09, 2016 4 min read
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Some Republicans have been trying to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education since President Ronald Reagan took office, when the agency was only about a year old.

Now, with Republican Donald Trump headed to the White House and a GOP-controlled House and Senate, Republicans have their best chance yet to scrap—or at least seriously scale back—the agency.

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.

For now, it looks like this idea remains on the table. Former Florida and Virginia state schools superintendent Gerard Robinson, who is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview Wednesday that he expects that the new president will “streamline, at least” the Education Department. (Robinson is serving on Trump’s transition team but spoke only on his own behalf.)

Slimming down—or getting rid of—the department won’t necessarily be a slam dunk. Past attempts to eliminate it, including one in the early 1980s, when Reagan took office, and another in the mid-1990s, when Congress flipped to Republican control, haven’t gotten very far. Both times though, the administration and Congress were from different parties, which won’t be the case next year.

But even in the current Republican-dominated political 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 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.

Other Options

Instead of starting with getting rid of the department, 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 Every Student Succeeds Act, 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 Obama could find themselves on the chopping block early in a Trump administration, such as the Education Innovation and Research program, or EIR. That’s the successor to the Investing in Innovation program, which helps school districts scale up and test out promising practices. It’s already slated for elimination in a House spending bill.

Other programs that Obama started, such as the Promise Neighborhoods Program, which helps schools pair academics with wraparound services, such as health programs, may also be in danger, despite support from lawmakers.

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 the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015. It didn’t make it through the GOP-controlled House at the time, but the political landscape has shifted now.

And there’s at least one office within the department that could get a makeover under a Trump presidency: The office for civil rights. It has been a hotbed of activity during the Obama administration, launching a 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 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.

If the department does stay at the cabinet level, who might be Trump’s education secretary? Names floated include Robinson (who told us he’s not interested), and one of Trump’s rivals in the primaries, Dr. Ben Carson. Another possibility: Rep. Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican and a big fan of school choice.

President-elect Donald Trump smiles as he delivers remarks at his victory rally in New York on Nov. 9. --Evan Vucci/AP

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Denisa R. Superville, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.