Multiple Republican presidential candidates made it clear at this week’s debate that the Department of Education is in danger if they are elected.
“Let’s shut down the head of the snake, the Department of Education,” Vivek Ramaswamy said. “Take that $80 billion, put it in the hands of parents across this country.”
Conservatives see the department, which has more than 4,400 employees and in its current form dates back to 1979 after first being established in 1867, as a prime example of Washington’s meddling in Americans’ lives. The time has come to “shut down the Federal Department of Education,” former Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday.
But what would it mean to actually shutter the massive agency?
How could the department be eliminated?
Killing the Department of Education (DOE) would be easier said than done.
Conservatives have said since the creation of the department they want to get rid of it. From President Ronald Reagan and his Education secretary to President Trump and his own, Republicans have decried the department’s existence but failed to abolish it.
That is because the decision to do so is not only up to the president and would have to go through Congress.
“There would have to be some legislation to specifically outline this, but I do think it would need to have the support of the executive branch and, obviously, this is a Cabinet-level agency, so I think having the president — would have to take a leadership role and help to make sure that the proposal is carefully crafted,” said Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman senior research fellow in education policy at The Heritage Foundation, which supports nixing the DOE.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) proposed such legislation in 2021 and reintroduced it earlier this year.
“Unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., should not be in charge of our children’s intellectual and moral development,” Massie said two years ago. “States and local communities are best positioned to shape curricula that meet the needs of their students. Schools should be accountable. Parents have the right to choose the most appropriate educational opportunity for their children, including home school, public school or private school.”
DOE did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.
DOE’s duties would be absorbed by other federal agencies
DOE has an enormous number of responsibilities, including handling student loans, investigating complaints against schools and tracking education progress across the country.
None of the 2024 candidates during Wednesday’s debate detailed how they would handle eliminating it, but conservatives have longed to see many of its tasks either completely eliminated or absorbed into other departments.
“For example, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. I think that any duplicate responsibilities that it shares with the Department of Justice should be eliminated, and then the rest of that office should go to the Department of Justice,” Butcher said.
On student loans, Butcher says the elimination could lead to the federal government getting “out of the business of awarding student loans, and then for what remains it would be moved to the Department of the Treasury.”
Even after ridding themselves of DOE, the GOP candidates indicated they would still focus on implementing national education policies.
“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,” Pence said.
In his opening remarks for his confirmation hearing, current Education Secretary Miguel Cardona embraced the various challenges he would have to take on as the head of the department.
“I look forward to sitting at the table with the vast, diverse community of people who have a stake in education: students, parents, teachers, caregivers, advocates and state, local and tribal leaders and the dedicated career staff at the department,” Cardona said.
Would the move save money?
Conservatives argue that eliminating the Education Department would cut costs and bureaucratic red tape for states.
“There’ll be considerable savings, both in terms of salaries as well as other expenditures for programs that may not even be effective,” Butcher said.
In a report from The Heritage Foundation back in 2020, the group estimated billions would be saved if DOE was abolished. The report says eliminating the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services would save $4 billion over time, while taking away the Office of Postsecondary Education would cut $2.1 billion
Those against getting rid of DOE have said the difficulty with closing the department and delegating tasks elsewhere would be a bureaucratic nightmare and actually raise costs on taxpayers.
Some have taken it a step further, saying the idea of getting rid of the department is “racist.”
“Although the effort to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education is grounded in the backdrop of a cultural war, this effort is also a direct affront to civil rights,” said Luke Wood, who at the time was a professor of education at San Diego State University, in an op-ed for The San Diego Union-Tribune when Massie reintroduced his legislation earlier this year.