Education Gets Trumped, Pt. 1: Eliminating the Department of Education

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Donald Trump made a lot of unconventional promises during his campaign for the presidency, promises that challenge Constitutionality, feasibility, and in many cases, basic common sense.

Now, as we sit in limbo at the start of his presidency, we are left to square these promises with reality. As we do, we may find in many cases that the gap between the two is considerable.

The President's education policy is a prime example. Though he rarely spoke on the subject during his campaign, what he did say was fairly confrontational. Trump offered his position on education across a smattering of self-produced videos, available only on his campaign website. It boiled down to three basic ideas: Ending Common Core, advancing “school choice,” and eliminating the Department of Education.

In the coming months, we'll examine all three apparent pillars. For now though, let's begin with what would be the farthest-reaching of his proposed rollbacks. Could Trump eliminate the Department of Education and, if so, what would that look like?

The Campaign Promise

So incredibly little was said of education at all during this campaign. In fact, as we noted in our summer coverage, Trump's camp offered the scarcest details on education among leading Republican primary candidates, Democratic competitors or third-party candidates. But beyond Trump, we failed collectively—the media, the academic community, and the voting public—to make education a primary issue during this election cycle. The topic engendered scarcely a nod during three televised debates in the general election, generated almost no media punditry, and factored not in the least into Trump's victory.

Because education was such a non-factor during this election, Trump's ideas were never seriously confronted or challenged. There was little meaningful discussion on whether these things should, or even could, be done. Often, Trump's position on education was a moving target. But he made one thing very clear. He really doesn't like the Department of Education.

In his own 2015 book, Crippled America, Trump observed that “A lot of people believe the Department of Education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don't eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach. Education has to be run locally. Common Core, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top are all programs that take decisions away from parents and local school boards. These programs allow the progressives in the Department of Education to indoctrinate, not educate, our kids. What they are doing does not fit the American model of governance.”

He also declared “I am totally against these programs and the Department of Education. It's a disaster. We cannot continue to fail our children--the very future of this nation.”

During a Fox News interview in October of 2015, Trump said that “We're going to be cutting tremendous amounts of money and waste and fraud and abuse. But, no, I'm not cutting services, but I am cutting spending. But I may cut Department of Education—Common Core is a very bad thing.”

As you can see, it isn't totally clear where he stands on the subject, but we can deduce that it's somewhere between gutting the Department of Education and eliminating it altogether. Interestingly, of the many radical promises that Trump offered during the presidential campaign, this one is actually not so terribly divergent from long-standing Republican values. In fact, threatening to eliminate the Department of Education is sort of a cherished conservative tradition.

A Brief History of the embattled Department of Education

How old is the tradition of assailing the Department's authority? Well, in 1867, President Andrew Johnson signed legislation creating the Department. It survived a mere year before lawmakers who were philosophically opposed to such far-reaching federal authority forced its demotion from full "Department" to mere "Office." Though its name and umbrella Department changed numerous times, it remained an Office for the next century-plus.

Two factors conspired to bring about its long-awaited return to Department status in the mid-20th century. First, as Cold War tensions mounted, we learned that we were technologically outmatched by the Soviets. This prompted a novel interest in greater federal funding for education initiatives. The second factor was President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, which saw the creation of numerous assistance programs and socially progressive initiatives.

The need for bureaucratic organization and oversight of these initiatives sparked Congress to pass the Department of Education Organization Act in 1979. Thus, under President Carter, the modern-day Department of Education kicked off operations in May of 1980.

As with its ill-fated first life, nearly a century prior, the Department came immediately under attack. Ronald Reagan made its elimination a major policy position. He was obstructed by a Democratically-controlled Congress. This time, the Department would survive the assault. But the promise of its elimination rears itself every few election cycles, whether during Newt Gingrich's sweeping Congressional victory in 1994, Bob Dole's presidential candidacy in 1996, or this year's bizarre Republican primaries.

Indeed, even as Trump lobbed schoolyard epithets at his Republican primary foes, he stood alongside at least half of them on this issue. His closest competitor, Ted Cruz slouched through the campaign on the strength of largely anti-federalist values. He said he would eliminate the Department of Education, as did libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

Trump falls behind a long line of Republican leaders who have serious beef with the Department of Education. But eliminating the agency whole-hog? There are plenty of reasons—both political and practical—why it hasn't happened yet. Were Trump to pursue and achieve this course of action, it would move us into uncharted territory (though punny enough, territory littered with charter schools).

But could Trump actually eliminate the Department of Education?

The Reality

According to Business Insider, there are no Constitutional obstacles to this objective. No laws or parameters exist to suggest that the Department can't be eliminated. According to Harvard Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe (and formal mentor to President Obama), there is no legal reason that Trump can't introduce a law abolishing the Department of Education.

That said, the department cannot simply be eliminated by executive order. The federal agency was created by an act of Congress and that's exactly what it would take to eliminate it. As noted, checks and balances have protected the Department from the threat of elimination in the past. Reagan's White House faced a Democratic Congress in the '80s and the Republican-led Congress of the '90s came up against the Clinton White House.

Trump's situation is unique. Alongside the presidency, both houses are now under Republican leadership. But this presents only the illusion of a mandate. Trump would need to pass his law through both houses. Even if he wrangled the support needed to move through the House of Representatives, he would still require 60 votes in a Senate where Republicans only control 52 seats.

And even some number of those Senators might be hesitant to invest their political capital in such an undertaking. As we will explore immediately hereafter, the elimination of the Department would have far-reaching effects on a wide range of Americans from low-income students, to military families, to impoverished rural school districts, and so many others.

The fallout from the Department's closure would be considerable and as such, a broad cross-section of public officials and education advocates would work aggressively to block any such action. The will to save the Department of Education would gather too much collective resistance to justify the political fallout. Trump is likely already learning this lesson as we speak.

The Fallout

Putting aside the question of whether or not the Department's closure is likely, we should consider what it would actually look like if Trump somehow made good on a promise that Republicans have bandied for decades. And please do bear in mind that this is not a discussion regarding the Department's effectiveness at performing its various responsibilities. Like most government bureaucracies, this one is vulnerable to scrutiny and criticism. Dissecting the Department would almost certainly reveal administrative bloat, misappropriation of funding, policy failure, and a host of other shortcomings that justify grievance.

Certainly, eliminating the Department is one way of confronting these shortcomings. But at what cost?

Well, ultimately, this move would engender fierce opposition not because the Department is so popular, well-liked and effective but because it performs an extremely wide array of practical functions that are not political, ideological, or partisan in nature.

Whether or not the Department should continue to exist is not a matter of ideology so much as practicality. Both the political identity of the department and the state of education today are actually quite secondary to the basic bureaucratic responsibilities carried out by the Department, from its primary role as a dispensary for public, federal and state program funding to its Civil Rights advocacy to its performance of essential data-gathering activities.

As of the present day, the incoming administration has declined to provide any details on what might replace the Department of Education or what agency, in its absence, might take up responsibility for the functions outlined above. It is a mystery, at present, whether the Department's elimination would see these responsibilities delegated to some array of other federal agencies, whether these responsibilities would somehow be delivered into the hands of state and local agencies, whether a wide range of these functions would shrink or simply cease to be, or some combination of all these outcomes.

We can comfortably predict that any one of these events would result in a massive bureaucratic undertaking. Simply unraveling the Department, determining where best to relocate certain functions, and engaging the political confrontations required to eliminate other functions—all of these actions would sap considerable labor and time from an administration that is, at the moment, simply learning how to build a White House staff and cabinet. No matter how it happens, this would be a tremendously disruptive undertaking with incredibly far-reaching implications.

According to the Department itself, “In 2007-08, the Department's elementary and secondary school programs served approximately 55 million students (pre-K through grade 12) attending some 100,000 public schools and 34,000 private schools. Department programs also provided grant, loan and work-study assistance to about 10 million undergraduate students.”

Case in point, the ED processes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that you fill out to determine assistance eligibility for college. All Pell Grants and Perkins Loans flow through the ED, most of them finding their way to low-income students.

This is why, “according to new analysis from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Trump's proposal could mean that more than 8 million low-income students—roughly the population of New York City—would lose millions of dollars for college.”

Ironically, this policy orientation would also be a major roadblock for one of Trump's own campaign promises. He told voters that, in the sphere of higher education, he would work to institute more widespread, lenient and accessible college loan forgiveness policies.

This would be exceptionally difficult to do with the elimination—or even just the massive defunding—of the Department of Education. As The Hill points out, under such a plan, programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Graduate PLUS, which provides loans to attend graduate school, could be in jeopardy.

What other programs would be threatened by the Department's Elimination?

Using budget figures culled directly from the Department of Education, the Center for American Progress Action Fund reports that, with the elimination of the Department of Education:

Even if one considers these funding priorities to be controversial—a perspective which is impractical at best and heartless at worst—there is yet more to the Department than the question of funding disbursement. For instance, the Department of Education presides over the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a fully non-partisan research office that serves as the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education both here and abroad.

The NCES is mandated by Congress to “collect, collate, analyze, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally.”

This makes the NCES—and by extension the ED—an essential outlet for free and publicly available data regarding the performance of our schools and students, the economic implications of these performances, and how these facts and figures stack the U.S. against the international community. Suffice it to say that the absence of such data would see us flying blind in the face of complex educational and infrastructural challenges. It's hard to imagine anybody making a political argument against the value, usefulness or necessity of such data.

But in the absence of a Department of Education, where would the NCES go? What would happen to it? Would we surrender its functionality in the absence of an umbrella department? Would it simply operate independent of agency oversight?

Trump has been characteristically stingy on the details here. We are, unfortunately, left with nothing but speculation on this subject. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

This underscores the real reason the Department of Education has survived so many attempts on its life, and why it is likely to survive this one as well. It is not that so many segments of the public are enamored of the Department or the general state of education today. Grievances with the Department of Education are numerous, and some of them are well-founded. But the notion of dismantling it hardly introduces us to a suitable alternative.

It also doesn't seem like a particularly intuitive way to resolve what the Trump administration views as overspending at the federal level. According to The Street, “One reason that Trump has called for its abolition is to eliminate ED's budget to save money. Trump claims he wants to fill a $500-billion-plus hole in the federal budget and part of his plan to get there would be to cut the $67 billion budget of ED.”

Of course, if the motive for eliminating the department is to help reduce government waste, take note that with a staff of roughly 5,000 employees and an annual budget hovering just under $70 billion, the Department of Education is already the smallest Cabinet-level Department in the Executive Branch, and by a long stretch.

A quick economic analysis suggests that the Department's elimination would scarcely offset Trump's hefty upperclass tax cuts. While the Department of Education accounts for only 6% of federal budget spending (as compared to the roughly 50% dedicated to discretionary defense spending), the 10-year price tag of the Trump tax proposal would be roughly $9.5 trillion.

In other words, we have so much more to lose in the dismantling of the Department than we have to gain in the spending it would offset. This is something that even Ronald Reagan was forced to acknowledge, eventually reversing his position on the Department over the course of his administration. Though he came into office seeking to dismantle the newly-minted agency, he was brokering deals both to keep it alive and increase its funding by the start of his second term.

By the time President George W. Bush introduced No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, Republicans had seemingly lost their party-line passion for the Department's dismantling. At a point when annual funding for the department was at roughly $27 billion per year, Bush's NCLB marked both a steady swell in funding and an increasing coalescence of bipartisan support around the Department itself.

Over the ensuing decade-and-a-half, the federal government infused the Department with a much larger budget and a leading stake in determining who enjoys the spoils of that budget. Small though it may be in the scope of the Executive branch, the ED is still a hulking government bureaucracy that performs an enormous array of functions. The last twenty years have seen the Department increasingly entrenched in the performance of these functions.

What is Actually Likely To Happen?

This is why, in the end, this isn't about defending the Department of Education. Whether or not the Department of Education needs serious repair—and it does—is a totally separate debate from whether or not it should be eliminated altogether. As has frequently been the case with the incoming president, it is less about defending the institution he decries, than inquiring to the self-proclaimed change-maker: “What do you propose in its place?”

As with many of Trump's campaign promises, the question looms. What would Trump propose in place of the Department of Education? Even if the incoming president doesn't agree with the Department's methods, priorities or effectiveness when it comes to the disbursement of funds or the commission of research, one can't overlook the strict functionary importance of the bodies and offices that do the actual labor.

If funding is to find its way to the proper outlets and data is to be gathered and dispensed for the good of the public, some suitable replacement for the Department would be in order. The effort of installing this replacement would prompt a massive disruption to the current state of business. With the cacophony of election coverage behind us—and many of Trump's most outrageous promises already in the rhetorical waste bin—one sincerely doubts that this is a disruption the incoming administration would care to undertake.

But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. Lindsey Burke of the conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation, suggested that the readiest alternative to the Department would be to consolidate its broad array of federal programs into so-called “block grants.”

As The Street points out, “block grants” have historically served as code for slashing social programs. For instance, “In 1996, Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), a part of the 1935 Social Security Act, was replaced by the more restrictive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, leading President Clinton to announce ‘the end of welfare as we know it' during his second term. In practice, funding to social services was drastically cut.”

Lindsey Burke seemed to concede as much in his assessment. He called the diversity of the Department's funding initiatives “niche priorities” and suggested that a Trump Administration might move first toward “eliminating a lot of the competitive-grant programs that have accumulated over the years.”

Education Week notes that such elimination would almost certainly target programmatic innovations from the Obama Administration like Education Innovation and Research, which helps districts build and test promising practices, as well as the Promise Neighborhoods Program, which helps pair academic programs with “wraparound services” like healthcare outreach.

Education Week also identified the Office For Civil Rights as a section of the Education Department that would be especially vulnerable to Trump cuts. Former Florida and Virginia state schools superintendent Gerard Robinson, who is serving on Trump's transition team, suggested that the new administration “would significantly curtail the office's role when it comes to state and local policies.”

The OCR has taken on a more prominent role in recent years as a lead advocate in exposing and stomping out sexual assault on college campuses. Politico reports that “eliminating OCR would be ‘absolutely devastating to survivors and educational access in this country,' said Alyssa Peterson, a policy coordinator at Know Your IX, a group that advocates on behalf of sexual assault victims.”

But there's still more to it than merely eliminating or consolidating funding programs. On a state by state basis, districts are already waist-deep in the process of implementing Obama-era policy reforms. For instance, Obama's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is set to replace NCLB in the coming year.

Illinois and several other states remain in the process of developing their individual ESSA state plans and are expected to continue doing so over the coming months. Asked if the election results would force them to change course, Illinois State Board of Education Director of Media and External Communications Jackie Matthews said in an email:

ISBE will continue developing its State Plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, based on stakeholder feedback gathered online and at listening tours across the state.

Rather than dismantle ESSA entirely, Republicans could stage an end-around by reintroducing the A-Plus Act, a policy that would allow states to opt out of ESSA without surrendering federal funding. But even this is just a gradual (and decidedly expensive) rollback of programs and policies that states have dedicated the last half-decade to propping up. The billions spent would basically be scrapped as yet another array of billions are invested in the as yet unidentified alternative.

This begs the question, just how extreme is the administrative bloat and wastefulness lurking within the Department. Is it bad enough to justify the enormous undertaking that would be its elimination. And do claims of bloat and wastefulness justify slashing funding for at-risk populations, cutting resources for statistical analysis, and blocking off channels for the distribution of federal resources?

Or is this a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

In the simplest of terms, the elimination of the Department of Education would remove a single bureaucracy, leaving an absolute tangle of un-delegated bureaucratic responsibilities in its wake.

Not Bloody Likely

Considering how much political wrangling would be required to get it done, how many practical demands would be created by its elimination, and how little Trump really seems to care about the subject of education, it's hard to believe this is a policy that he'll actually pursue, either incrementally or by tearing off the proverbial band-aid.

It seems sensible based on the cues offered by Trump surrogates and transition personnel, to instead prepare for widespread defunding within the Department. Some of its funding priorities will be deprioritized. Others are likely to be gutted to the point of irrelevancy. The positive impact of these moves on the federal budget would be so modest as to be imperceptible whereas the negative impact on those at-risk students, military families, rural school districts, and the countless other Americans who benefit from the department's disbursement of funds would likely be quite profound.

For as radical as Trump's candidacy was, and as unconventional as his cabinet choices have been, the idea of eliminating the Department of Education is basically a long-standing Republican trope, nothing more. Thanks to recent history, we have ample evidence at our disposal to suggest that elimination of the Department is more rhetoric than reality. We may see an erosion of its programs and a consolidation of its funding priorities that leaves many of its beneficiaries out in the cold. But the Department itself probably isn't going anywhere.

Check out Education Gets Trumped, Pt. 2: Ending Common Core.

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