Ever since President Jimmy Carter created the U.S. Department of Education in 1979, conservatives have been trying to abolish it. Rick Perry, the Texas governor who in a 2011 presidential debate couldn’t remember all the U.S. agencies he wanted to shutter, had total recall over one — the Education Department.
Will conservatives finally get the job done? Donald Trump, who also calls for the agency’s demolition, will be in the White House, and Republicans have a majority in Congress. Betsy DeVos, an activist for school vouchers and critic of public education, has been nominated for education secretary.
Before answering that question, let’s run down what the department does. Its discretionary budget is all of $68 billion. Of that, $22 billion is for Pell Grants, awarded in amounts up to $5,800 to 8 million financially needy college students. If the department disappears, some other body would still need to determine eligibility for the grants and ensure their proper distribution.
Even Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, would keep the Pell Grants — under the Treasury Department — after ditching the Education Department. The grants, after all, work much like the vouchers conservatives love: Students who meet the criteria receive federal funds to attend the public, private or for-profit school of their choice.
The Education Department also oversees $1.3 trillion in student loans. That means evaluating student and family finances, giving out the money and getting it back with interest. Abolishing the agency wouldn’t eliminate the need for a bureaucracy to perform these tasks, or to oversee a private contractor’s work.
Another of the department’s jobs is distributing $15 billion in Title I funds to school districts that serve disadvantaged children. The districts, in return, must meet performance criteria such as lower dropout rates and higher graduation numbers. The agency distributes an additional $13 billion to 5 million students with physical and mental disabilities.
Without the federal money, states would have to come up with these funds, yet some will surely have other priorities besides educating low-income and disabled kids. The same goes for many of the smaller federal programs that help schools in rural areas, expand early-childhood education, recruit and train teachers, offer computer-science classes and the like.
The department also enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, including the Title IX requirements to treat the sexes equally. Because Title IX applies only to colleges that receive federal funding, ending federal-education spending might also spell the end of Title IX.
A less-appreciated but no less vital role for the agency is the collection of national data on education outcomes, teacher training and the effectiveness of research grants. Left to their own devices, some states might decide not to collect data, or they may gather it in 50 different formats, making it impossible to judge achievement or compare progress between states.
Sometimes the Education Department is credited with (or blamed for) things it didn’t do. At his rallies, Trump’s call for the end of Common Core standards on the grounds they are a federal boondoggle drew almost as many huzzahs as his pledges to “build the wall.” But the standards, which cover English language arts and math only, were drawn up by teachers and state education chiefs and were adopted by 42 states voluntarily.
The U.S. never mandated their use, though it certainly encouraged them by giving states an advantage when applying for federal grants if they adopted standards like Common Core. This made some teachers, parents and states feel like the standards were being foisted on them, complaints that candidate Trump ran with.
(The results so far, however, aren’t what Trump would have us believe: Improving test scores may be a sign that Common Core is working. Even some vocal proponents of ending Washington’s influence over education, like William Bennett, Reagan’s education secretary, support the standards.)
Overall, conservatives see the Education Department, like Obamacare, as a symbol of federal intrusion and wasteful spending. But Trump and other critics often overlook the fact that Republican presidents oversaw some of the biggest federal expansions over schools.
President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 report, “A Nation at Risk,” written by his education secretary, Terrell Bell, raised alarms over the poor state of public schools; it led to increased federal spending and oversight. President George W. Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind law vastly expanded federal involvement in K-12 education, which punished and rewarded school districts based on test results.
No Child Left Behind officially ended this week with the issuance of final rules that put its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, into force. The new law gives states more flexibility to set their own education standards, but that may not matter to DeVos, who, if confirmed, may try to rewrite the rules even as she seeks to get rid of the agency she will run.
But like education secretaries before her, it’s an open question whether DeVos would really devote much time to getting rid of her Cabinet-level job, especially when she has the bully pulpit she has always wanted to push vouchers, charters, school choice and other causes that she and her husband, billionaire businessman Dick DeVos, have long championed.
Some of what the department does meshes with the agenda of Trump and DeVos, including spending $350 million to expand charter schools. If she and the president-elect really want more school choice and voucher programs, isn’t a federal thumb on the scale the best way to push them?
So back to the original question: Will the new Republican president and the Republican Congress finally kill the Education Department? I would bet no.
Dwyer writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. She is co-author, with former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, of “Take On the Street.”