During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly hit at the role of federal government in education, arguing instead for increased local control of schools. He has also hinted that the Department of Education should be abolished.
“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,” he wrote in his book “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America.”
The education department was created in 1979 through the Department of Education Organization Act passed by Congress. The department’s main functions include administering federal assistance to schools and enforcing federal education laws.
Getting rid of—the department won’t necessarily be easy. Past attempts to eliminate it, including one in the early 1980s, when Reagan took office, and another in the mid-1990s, when Congress flipped to Republican control, haven’t gotten very far. Both times though, the administration and Congress were from different parties, which won’t be the case next year.
But even in the current Republican-dominated political landscape, abolishing the department would cost Trump and his allies political capital that they might rather spend elsewhere.
“That’s a heavy lift, and there’s some Republicans that may not be comfortable with that,” said Vic Klatt, a former aide to House Republicans on the education committee who is now a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government relations organization in Washington. He thinks such a proposal could get tripped up in the Senate, which requires a 60-vote threshold to get past procedural hurdles.
And education advocates would likely fight against getting rid of the department. “We would actively oppose it,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in an interview. “And I think there is enough of a coalition on Capitol Hill to make opposition to it a rather bipartisan issue.”
What’s more, Klatt said, the agency itself may not be as paramount as the programs that it operates.
“At the end of the day what matters most is not the structure, it’s the programs. I don’t think the new president has given any indication that he’s likely to get rid of the most important programs,” Klatt said.
Instead of starting with getting rid of the department, Trump and his team may turn first to funneling federal education programs into broad block grants, essentially doubling down on the program consolidation that’s already in the new Every Student Succeeds Act, said Lindsey Burke, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“There are just dozens of niche programs that the department operates,” she said. “And even though they have not worked well for kids, there is a constituency of adults throughout the country who really agitate to maintain those programs.” The new administration could start with consolidation and block granting, and then move toward “eliminating a lot of the competitive-grant programs that have accumulated over the years.”
In particular, programs closely associated with President Obama could find themselves on the chopping block early in a Trump administration, such as the Education Innovation and Research program, or EIR. That’s the successor to the Investing in Innovation program, which helps school districts scale up and test out promising practices. It’s already slated for elimination in a House spending bill.
Other programs that Obama started, such as the Promise Neighborhoods Program, which helps schools pair academics with wraparound services, such as health programs, may also be in danger, despite support from lawmakers.