President Donald Trump wants to combine the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor into a single agency focused on workforce readiness and career development.
But the plan, which was announced during a cabinet meeting Thursday, will need congressional approval. That’s likely to be a tough lift. Similar efforts to scrap the nearly 40-year-old education department or combine it with another agency have fallen flat.
The proposal to merge the education and labor departments is the centerpiece of a broader plan to remake the entire federal government. The new agency, which would be called the Department of Education and the Workforce, would be “charged with meeting the needs of American students and workers from education and skill development to workplace protection to retirement security,” according to a White House outline of the plan.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said the plan would help break down “artificial barriers” between education and career-development programs.
“President Trump campaigned and won with his promise to reduce the federal footprint in education and to make the federal government more efficient and effective. Today’s bold reform proposal takes a big step toward fulfilling that promise,” said DeVos in a statement. “Artificial barriers between education and workforce programs have existed for far too long. We must reform our 20th century federal agencies to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools.”
In addition to combining the Education and Labor Departments, the proposal from OMB Director Mick Mulvaney would move the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services into the Department of Health and Human Services, which in turn would be renamed the Department of Health and Public Welfare. It would also reorganize the U.S. Census Bureau, and consolidate federal economic assistance resources, among other changes.
“This is the generational kind of stuff that you asked us to do,” Mulvaney told Trump in a cabinet meeting Thursday. “This is what you talked about when you said: Drain the swamp.”
What It Would Look Like
There would be four main sub-agencies in the newly constituted department: K-12, Higher Education/Workforce Development, Enforcement, and Research/Evaluation/Administration.
The K-12 sub-agency, according to the report, would include Title I programs for disadvantaged students, Impact Aid, school improvement programs, school safety and citizenship programs, Indian education, innovation and improvement, English-language acquisition, and special education.
The Institute of Education Sciences and the office for civil rights, both currently overseen by the Education Department, would not be parts of the K-12 sub-agency. Instead, IES, the current Education Department’s research arm, which has a budget of $613 million, would become part of the Research/Evaluation/Administration office. That sub-agency would also deal with department-wide evaluation, program administration, and student aid administration.
And the office for civil rights, which has a budget of $117 million, would be folded into a new Enforcement Office, which would also include worker protection agencies from the former Labor Department.
Higher education would be handled by the new American Workforce and Higher Education Administration. It would be designed to promote innovation and improvement at colleges and universities. This administration would also oversee career and technical education, as well as adult and youth workforce development.
Here is a chart of how the new cabinet department would be organized:
The broader proposal would require congressional approval, which could be an uphill battle. Even before the official announcement, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, called the proposal “unrealistic, unhelpful, and futile.”
And Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, criticized the plan as hastily conceived and unhelpful. “There is no evidence that merging the Departments of Labor and Education would strengthen the performance of these agencies or produce better outcomes for students and workers,” Scott said in a statement.
But Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House education committee, signalled that she was receptive to the proposal, saying in a statement that, “The proposed Department of Education and the Workforce is recognition of the clear relationship between education policy at every level and the needs of the growing American workforce.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, was less effusive, even as he expressed openness to the proposal.
“I think it’s always wise to look for greater efficiency in how our government operates and I will study the proposal carefully,” Alexander said in a statement.
Merging two disparate agencies could lead to serious logistical and managerial challenges.
The Education Department has a budget of more than $70 billion, and nearly 4,000 employees. It operates the student loan program and administers big K-12 programs such as Title I and the special education. It also makes sure colleges and schools are following civil rights laws, particularly for vulnerable populations. The Labor Department, meanwhile, has a budget of $12.2 billion budget for fiscal 2018. It oversees the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. As of fiscal 2017, the department had approximately 14,400 employees.
If the proposal were to go through, the combined agency “would be a bank, a K-12 educator, a college educator, an OSHA regulator, a training administrator, a mine safety expert ... It’s all these things amalgamated into one, which just makes you scratch your head a little bit,” said Vic Klatt, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush, and is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government relations organization in Washington.
And he said the employees at each agency focus on different things. The Labor Department is first and foremost a regulatory agency, he said, with very little grant-making authority, while the Education Department focuses on both grant making and regulation.
Those are two “very different missions,” Klatt said. “I would think if you put more regulators in the mix that could change the nature of the endeavor.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Mann Levesque, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institution, worried the new broader, agency would have all the same mandates and responsibilities of the agencies it replaced—with potentially fewer staff and resources to carry out its mission.
“It could mean fewer people doing the same amount of work, which isn’t necessarily a good thing from an implementation standpoint, for students and parents who rely on the federal government to enforce laws which are designed for their benefit,” she said.
While she believes the plan is well-intentioned, Lindsey Burke of the conservative Heritage Foundation says she is concerned that the plan could actually lead to Washington policymakers trying to exert more and not less influence over schools, in the name of helping the labor market.
She also believes that Congress has shown no inclination to significantly change the status quo at the Education Department.
“I’m skeptical that merging Labor and ED will result in downsizing,” said Burke, who is the director of the Center for Education Policy at Heritage. “It just seems like the Department of [Education], plus all this labor stuff now.”
‘You Can All Go Home’
Matthew Blomstedt, Nebraska’s education commissioner, said that if the new federal department did not interfere with his work with other state officials on labor and workforce issues, he did not see the proposal as necessarily harmful.
At the same time, Blomstedt said he would become worried if the Department of Education and the Workforce merely thought of education as a means to produce labor, “instead of thinking about the broader equity of an education system.” Maintaining the federal focus on disadvantaged students as outlined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would be particularly important for him.
“I would hope, anyway, that there would be intentional connections between the sub-agencies,” Blomstedt said.
Eugene Schmidt, the superintendent of the Farmington Municipal Schools district in New Mexico, said he was concerned that a merger would undermine public education and derail federal efforts to help schools innovate and improve.
“I am unsure how this will save money as I don’t know the details—but I continue to be fearful that by burying the [Education Department] in another agency, the message is basically, ‘you can all go home,’” Schmidt said.
This isn’t the first time that Republicans have tried to scrap the Education Department, which opened in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter. Later that year, then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan made getting rid of the agency a centerpiece of his successful campaign.
But, after Reagan took office, a task force of administration officials charged with determining next steps could not agree on the best way to abolish the agency. At one point, for instance, Reagan’s secretary of education, Terrel H. Bell, proposed turning the department into a subcabinet, foundation-like agency, similar to the National Science Foundation.
The proposal never gained traction in Congress. Instead, the Reagan administration’s landmark report “A Nation at Risk’ paved the way for more federal involvement in education.
A decade and half later, in 1995, then-Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., introduced a bill that would have combined the education and labor departments. At the time, Gunderson estimated that his bill would save the federal government $21 billion over five years. It had the support of the House education chairman at the time, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, a Republican. But it never even made it to a committee vote—in part because of vehement opposition from labor leaders and the Clinton administration.
Gunderson, who is now the president of the Association for Career Education Colleges and Universities, said the idea is even more necessary today than it was back in the 1990s, since connections between higher education and the workforce are even more important in the current economy. But, he warned, pulling it off won’t be quick or easy.
“The idea of merging departments is a big, bold idea, and it takes a lot of time and education for people to understand the benefits and reason the reasons you do it,” Gunderson said. “So this is not something you release and pass in a month.”
Read the full government reorganization plan below: