In the first GOP presidential debate last month, four candidates called for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. In doing so, they embraced the same position as front-runner Donald Trump. The pledges generated headlines like Education Week’s “Broad Calls to Ax Education Department and Take On Teachers’ Unions at 1st GOP Debate” as well as the predictable passel of calls from reporters and muckety-mucks wondering how this would work and what it might mean. Given the reaction, it seems worth taking a moment to ask what this proposal means and how likely it is to come to fruition if a Republican claims the White House in 2024.
For starters, eliminating the Department is hardly a new notion. Republicans have been calling for its abolition pretty much since its inception in 1979. In 1980, the year after Jimmy Carter fulfilled a campaign pledge to the National Education Association by creating the Department, Ronald Reagan pledged to dismantle it. What actually happened, though, was that Terrel Bell, Reagan’s first education secretary, launched the blue-ribbon commission that penned “A Nation at Risk” to help forestall such a move by making the case for the Department’s importance.
National figures’ promising to abolish the Department (and then not doing so) has been a staple of GOP politics and party platforms for four decades. In 1994, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” advocated eliminating the Department. In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole did the same. In 2011, the GOP presidential debates featured an infamous moment when ED was one of three cabinet departments that Rick Perry promised to eliminate—and one of the two he could recall. (Some readers may remember Perry’s cringe-worthy deer-in-the-headlights moment: “And I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the . . . what’s the third one there? Let’s see . . . Oops.”)
Needless to say, Republicans have yet to follow through on any of this. In fact, the most significant expansion of federal education authority in decades occurred under the administration of Republican George W. Bush with a Republican House. Even as Trump pledges to abolish the Department if elected in 2024, the closest he came to doing so when he occupied the White House (and when Republicans had unified control of Capitol Hill) was to muse on the possibility of merging the Department of Education and the Department of Labor. Over the past 40 years, federal education spending has steadily increased regardless of which party controlled Congress or the White House.
Given the history, there’s good reason to take calls for eliminating the Department with a big grain of salt. And I say this as someone who, for the record, is hugely sympathetic to calls to abolish the Department—or at least dramatically downsize its programs and pare its payroll.
So, how seriously should observers take today’s calls to eliminate the Department of Education? To judge what candidates have to say on this score, we should ask three questions.
What do you mean by “abolishing the Department of Education”?
Congress could vote to “abolish” the Department and then simply move all its programs, funds, and personnel to other departments or agencies. Indeed, this seems most likely to happen, since none of the candidates have voiced enthusiasm for eliminating (or even cutting) Department of Education funding for Title I, special education, or Pell Grants. On this count, I remember former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann who, when running for the presidency in 2012, called for the Department’s elimination on the campaign trail and then flew back to the Capitol to vote for maintaining special-education outlays.
So, does “abolishing the Department” mean getting the federal government out of education by eliminating federal education programs and staff? That course seems truest to the plain meaning of the promise but also the toughest to honor. Might it just mean handing programs to other agencies or cabinet departments? That seems truer to the letter than to the spirit of the pledge. Or could “abolish” just mean turning all of these programs into block grants to states? If so, how much federal direction and oversight would there be, and who would be charged with providing it? At this point, straightforward talk of eliminating the Department has morphed into a much swampier discussion of block grants, federal strings, and legal oversight.
If by “abolishing the Department” you mean eliminating or radically downsizing most of its programs, which ones will you cut?
Given the outsized role of student lending in its finances and operations, the U.S. Department of Education has been wryly described as a big bank with a small policy shop attached. That’s truer than ever after the Biden administration’s ongoing student loan shenanigans. So, when talking about eliminating the Department, are candidates committing to downsize, phase out, or put an end to federal student lending? Aside from student loans, the biggest federal education expenditures last year were Title I funds for high-poverty schools ($18 billion a year), special education funding ($15 billion a year), and Pell Grants ($28 billion a year). Does “eliminating the Department” mean slashing these outlays?
Absent clear answers on this count, it’s safe to assume that education spending would mostly continue on its current course—which means that “eliminating ED” would likely entail jamming these programs into another cabinet department. Prior to 1979, most education activity was housed in the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. If the plan were to essentially reconstitute the old HEW, it’s not obvious how this would change the nature or scope of Washington’s role. Any candidate who wants to argue otherwise will actually need to make that case.
How will you convince the public and policymakers to support the effort to eliminate the Department of Education?
Calls to eliminate the Department of Education play well in a GOP primary because ED is massively unpopular with Republicans. This summer, Pew polling reported that the Department’s favorable-to-unfavorable ratio among Republicans was an abysmal 29–65. (The numbers are reversed among Democrats, who approve of ED 62–30.)
The story gets more complicated, however. In 2016, for instance, Gallup reported that, when asked whether they’d like to see the U.S. eliminate the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development, Americans were opposed by a 63–18 margin. Granted, that was seven years ago. After the pandemic and in an increasingly populist party, is there a newfound appetite for getting Uncle Sam out of education? Well, this March, AP-NORC reported that 65 percent of adults said the federal government is spending too little on education (just 12 percent said it’s spending too much). Fifty-two percent of Republicans said the federal government should spend more on education.
When even Republicans say they want Washington to spend more on education, it’s hard to see how any administration—no matter how sincere its ambitions—will find the resolve to substantially shrink the federal role. Indeed, as long as the filibuster remains in place, calls to eliminate or significantly reshape the Department face a nearly impossible climb.
So, what’s the plan to rally popular support, marshal the votes on Capitol Hill, and overcome the filibuster? Without any answers, talk of eliminating the Department is little more than hollow chatter. Anyone hoping to rein in federal educrats will need to offer more than symbolic gestures.
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.