In the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle, four of the candidates called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, while three also vowed to crush teacher unions.
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Vivek Ramaswamy, Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota, and Vice President Mike Pence all said that, if elected, they would eliminate the federal Department of Education. Ramaswamy, former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina also threatened the teacher unions, with Scott saying, “The only way we change education in this nation is to break the backs of the teachers unions.”
The U.S. Department of Education was created by a law passed in 1979 under the administration of President Jimmy Carter and began operating in 1980. Before that, from 1953 forward, the federal government’s education-related functions were part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Fox News, which hosted the debate in Milwaukee, devoted a segment toward the end of the two-hour program to education, with moderator Bret Baier referring to the Nation’s Report Card exposing a “crisis” of chronic absenteeism and steep declines in reading and math achievement.
“The decline in education is one of the major reasons why our country is in decline,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, we stood up for what was right. First, we had schools open during Covid, and a lot of the problems that we’ve seen are because these lockdown states locked their kids out of school for a year, year and a half. That was wrong.
“As president, I’m going to lead an effort to increase civic understanding and knowledge of our constitution,” the Florida governor added. “We cannot be graduating students that don’t have any foundation in what it means to be an American.”
“Let’s shut down the head of the snake, the Department of Education,” Ramaswamy said. “Take that $80 billion, put it in the hands of parents across this country. This is the civil rights issue of our time. Allow any parent to choose where they send their kids to school.”
Ramaswamy also said he’d “end the teachers unions at the local level.” He did not specify how he would achieve that. Neither did Senator Scott.
Christie said Scott was correct about the need to break the back of the teacher unions. “I started this in 2010 by going right after the teachers unions in New Jersey and drove them down to an all-time low popularity rating because they’re putting themselves before our kids,” the former governor said. “That is the biggest threat to our country.”
Pence, who served in Congress and as governor of Indiana, said he’d fought against earlier Republican-backed efforts to link standards, testing, and accountability to federal funding. “I was fighting against No Child Left Behind,” Pence said. “I’ll also shut down the Federal Department of Education. And when I was governor, we doubled the size of the largest school choice program in America, and we’ll give school choice to every family in America when I’m in the White House.”
Governor Burgum defended educators. “Teachers in this country, the vast majority of them care about those kids. They’re working in low-paying jobs and they’re fighting for those kids and their families,” he said.
The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, also hit back. “Let’s be clear: When Tim Scott and Chris Christie attack teachers unions, they’re attacking teachers. Teachers unions exist to give teachers a voice so that they can do their best for kids,” Weingarten said in a post on “X,” the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Former governors Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Nikki Haley of South Carolina also participated in the debate. In their education policy answers, Hutchinson spoke about expanding computer-science education, while Haley highlighted reading remediation and vocational education. “Let’s put vocational classes back into the high schools. Let’s teach our kids to build things again,” Haley said.
Former President Donald Trump, who polls show with a wide lead among Republicans, chose not to participate in the debate. Instead, he sat for an interview with Tucker Carlson that was available on X (Twitter). Education policy did not come up in that interview.