The 2012 election has witnessed a revival of Republican antipathy for the federal Department of Education, a longtime target in the ongoing quest to curtail government.
The current frontrunners have staked out a somewhat nuanced position. Mitt Romney, in a characteristic hedge, has both referenced the need to get the federal government out of education and lauded President Barack Obama's signature Race to the Top education initiative. Newt Gingrich has likewise both praised education as the one area where I very much agree with the president and said that rather than Congress or the president, the responsibility for education reform should fall to the school boards, city council, state legislature, county commission, governorships.
Others have been less subtle. Ron Paul, consistent with his rock-ribbed libertarianism, believes the Department of Education should be eliminated altogether. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (whose Tea Party-friendly platforms are in many ways the doctrinal stepchildren of Paul's libertarianism) have advocated for the same. While Perry could not name the Department of Energy during his notorious gaffe, he had no trouble recalling the Department of Education as one of three federal agencies he would axe.
While Perry, Paul and Bachmann are highly unlikely to win the nomination at this point, let's indulge them for a moment. What would happen if we did away with the federal Department of Education?
Perennial GOP Whipping Post: U.S. Department of Education
First, a little history. Republican calls to dissolve the department are nothing new. The agency was midwifed by President Jimmy Carter amidst a push by the National Education Association, another Republican bugaboo, to help streamline tasks that had been diffused across different agencies. Republican presidents ever since have tried to do away with it (with the notable exception of George W. Bush -- more on that in a moment), and as recently as 1996 eliminating the DOE was an official plank in the GOP Presidential Platform.
It's almost impossible to shut down a federal department, and the Reaganites knew that in 1980, said Catherine Lugg, a professor at Rutgers University's Graduate School of Education. It's symbolic politics, although the reasons fueling it have change over time.
Reagan's lack of success is attributable in part to the publication in 1983 of a report, A Nation at Risk, that leveled a withering assessment of a rising tide of mediocrity in American schools. But more important is the fact that the federal government's first major foray into education occured not with the Department of Education but with the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has been the foundation for federal education policy ever since.
Passed as part of President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, the bill was intended to ensure that all students receive a quality education regardless of their socioeconomic background. Congress sends billions of dollars a year to states through the bill's Title 1 provision, which provides additional funding for the educationally disadvantaged. The act also establishes funding for research on education and enables popular programs like Pell Grants for low-income college students and Head Start, an early childhood education program for lower-income children.
Schools still derive most of their funding from the state and local level, but federal funding generally accounts for about 10 percent of states' education budgets. Republicans seeking to abolish the Department of Education would need to decide what to do with those federal dollars.
A presidential candidate who wants to talk about eliminating [the Department of Education] has to talk about what he wants to do with the functions of that agency, said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center for Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Does the candidate take the position that programs to ensure students are treated equally in schools should be eliminated? Does he think that the compensatory aid that sends $20 billion a year to impoverished school districts should be eliminated?
Moreover, the architecture the Elementary and Secondary Education Act put in place would remain intact even without a federal Department of Education. That includes the funding mechanisms for Title 1 and language aimed at guaranteeing equal educational opportunity.
You can eliminate the DOE, create something like it and fund it twice as much, said Kevin Welner, a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and director of National Education Policy Center. It doesn't change the legal structure - what courts will or will not allow - it doesn't change the laws on the books, it doesn't necessarily change the staffing or the federal rules.
It's also important to note that the Obama administration's ambitious push for education reform essentially continues an effort originally undertaken by President George W. Bush. Bush's landmark No Child Left Behind law, which was a reauthorization of the ESEA, required schools that received federal funding to demonstrate rising student achievement on standardized tests formulated by states. Schools that didn't show progress were punished with measures like losing funding or being required to overhaul their teaching staff. Obama's Race to the Top program tied a pot of federal money to similar measures.
GOP: Autonomically Opposing Education Policy That Obama Favors?
It's very interesting that these Republican candidates have swung so far away from where Bush was in terms of making accountability the centerpiece, and I think it's mainly because the Obama administration has embraced that, so I think they have to come up with something different, said John Rury, a professor of education policy and history at the University of Kansas. But accountability is important so schools address the lowest-performing kids, the kids from poor backgrounds.
States maintain a fair amount of autonomy in how they allocate money and create curricula, and both the Obama administration and the Senate have backed away from the rigidity of No Child Left Behind with plans that would give states greater latitude in how they assess student progress.
But the federal government has taken on an indispensable role in combatting the variation and uncertainty inherent in leaving education up to the states, Rury said. He said that the process for dispensing Title 1 funding had been wasteful and ineffective before the Department of Education was established and argued that the department was necessary to ensure that the lowest performing students are not neglected.
People used to say public education is a monopoly, but there are 16,000 districts competing against each other and we see there are winners and losers, Rury said. We need something to even the playing field, and that's what the federal government has done.