Back to the Future
GOP Again has Education Department in Crosshairs
From the time it was born in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter, Republicans have been trying to kill the U.S. Department of Education.
Their best chance to do so may be ahead of them. Or maybe not.
When Ronald Reagan was campaigning against Carter in 1980, he made dismantling the department a centerpiece of his campaign, deriding it as a boondoggle and a brazen power grab of responsibilities best left to states and localities — their less-than-stellar record on education notwithstanding.
During his tenure, Reagan succeeded in shrinking the size of the department and reducing its budget. That the agency survived, ironically, was the Reagan administration’s own doing. Talk of abolishment quieted in 1983 with the release of the landmark “A Nation at Risk” report. The report documented that the American education system was falling far behind its international competitors. Suddenly, schools and colleges needed more oversight, not less.
But the issue refused to die in the hearts and minds of the GOP. Between 1980 and 2016, GOP candidates uniformly vowed to eliminate the Education Department. During the 2016 campaign, presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Donald J. Trump all vowed to abolish the department.
As recently as last year, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R- Ky., filed a bill in Congress that read in full, “The Department of Education shall terminate on Dec. 21, 2018.”
Today, the department has about 3,900 employees, making it the smallest among cabinet-level federal agencies. It has a $68 million annual budget, with responsibilities for data collection and analysis, oversight, civil rights enforcement and student aid, among others.
So when the Trump Administration proposed to merge the Education Department with the U.S. Department of Labor and create a single agency called the Department of Education and the Workforce, foes of ED cheered. They included Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who heads a department she has long criticized.
“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,” she said in a statement. “Today’s bold reform proposal takes a big step toward fulfilling that promise. 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.”
Some observers, however, saw the merger plan as a thinly veiled attempt to drastically reduce spending on education and kill the department, once and for all.
“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,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee. “The Department of Labor is no more equipped to oversee elementary education policy than the Department of Education is prepared to enforce standards for coal mine safety. The logic behind this proposal is painfully thin.”
Even the Republican chairwoman of the Education and Workforce Committee sounded lukewarm on the merger, indicating that the proposal was developed without any significant input from Congressional stakeholders. It was mainly the work of Mick Mulvaney, chief of the Office of Management and Budget.
“The federal government is long overdue for a serious overhaul,” said U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, D- N.C. “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. At the Committee on Education and the Workforce, we make these connections in everything we do. We welcome the administration’s focus on education and workforce issues together, and as we continue our oversight over the Department of Education and the Department of Labor, we look forward to working with the administration on the proposal and how the new department could function to best serve American students, workers, job creators, and families.”
The latest plan was met with skepticism in the Senate. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said members of both parties had pushed back against Trump’s proposals “to drastically gut investments in education, health care and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves.”
What the merger would mean to community colleges or the rest of higher education is unclear. Under the plan, community colleges would be governed by a new American Workforce and Higher Education Administration. The new agency would bring together, under one umbrella, all current Labor Department workforce development programs and Education Department vocational education, rehabilitation and higher education programs.
The Education Department has long been criticized for its inability to appreciate the wide variety of higher education institutions, such as community colleges. The Obama administration championed community colleges — at least its rhetoric did — but Trump has shown little understanding or interest in community colleges.
Would the merger improve the lot of community colleges? It is difficult to say. The proposed merger plan provided very few details. Rather, it relied on vague, gauzy language about the value of streamlining government.
“The new merged department would reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, streamline access and better integrate education and workforce programs, and allow the Administration to more effectively address the full range of issues affecting American students and workers,” the report says. “The workforce development program consolidation would centralize and better coordinate Federal efforts to train the American workforce, reduce administrative costs, and make it easier for states and localities to run programs to meet the comprehensive needs of their workforce.”
The proposal hit Capitol Hill with a thud. Even Trump seemed to deride it as boring, a sin in the realm of the Reality TV president.
During a cabinet meeting after the release of the reform plan, Trump said, “Would the media like to hear Mick Mulvaney’s report, or would you find it extraordinarily boring and therefore not fit for camera?” The proposed merger is part of a sweeping government reorganization plan, the latest in a long string of attempts to rein in the federal government, most of which have died due to congressional opposition.
Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said various reorganization plans have been hashed and rehashed for decades but have ultimately failed because of stubborn resistance in Congress.
“You’re not just asking members of Congress to reorganize agencies, you’re asking them to reorganize the appropriations process and give up their subcommittee positions,” Light told the Associated Press. “There’s not a single member of Congress ready to give up those authorities.”
“You can put these pieces together in many ways,” Light said. “But that doesn’t make them work any better.”