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Abolish the Education Department? Abandoned Idea Gets New Life

Empty Classroom

File: June 2006: An empty classroom in Jackson, MIss.AP

Like many Republicans, Atlanta's Stella Lohmann -- a blogger, teacher and former journalist -- is fed up with mandates, funding requests, lawsuit avoidance and a one-size-fits-all approach to education and says the federal government has undertaken a massive overreach. 

Now, her question on what Republicans are going to do about it – asked during the Fox News/Google debate on Thursday night -- has re-ignited a once-novel debate over eliminating the U.S. Education Department. And judging by the GOP candidates' reaction, the option may come back in vogue, if not into reality.

"I am going to promise to advocate the abolishment of the federal Department of Education," said former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

"What I would do as president of the United States is pass the mother of all repeal bills on education," said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. "Then I would go over to the Department of Education, I'd turn off the lights, I would lock the door and I would spend all the money back to the states and localities."

"You need to dramatically shrink the federal Department of Education, get rid of virtually all of its regulations," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich chimed in.

Indeed, all of the GOP candidates said they would either get rid of the department -- created in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter -- or seriously diminish its function. Their uniform responses earned wild applause during the debate.

But the idea isn't new, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, pointed out, and Republicans haven't met words with actions. 

"In 1980, when the Republican Party ran, part of the platform was to get rid of the Department of Education. By the year 2000, (that issue) was eliminated, and we fed on to it," Paul said. "Then ... Republicans added No Child Left Behind."

Indeed, every year from 1980-2000, Republicans included in their platform the plank: "The federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the market place. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education," read the 1996 platform that accompanied the presidential nomination of then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole.

But by the mid-1990s, abolition was no longer a priority, recalled Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government. "I don't think they saw it as a big winner as such. They were looking for political talking points not policy." 

Whatever the reason the plank has slipped from the platform – whether because Republicans have moved onto other agenda items, or because Americans did not find it palatable, prudent or possible -- the department continues to grow from its statistical collections and college loan processing.

By 2002, it had added a massive new mandate with the blessing of President George W. Bush. Aimed at increasing performance through testing, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind is in part responsible for exploding the education budget.

President Obama's 2012 spending request for the department is $77.4 billion for discretionary spending – up from $46.2 billion 10 years earlier. The department itself notes it has the third largest budget despite having the smallest staff of 15 Cabinet agencies. 

The spending has conservatives shouting mad in the era of debt and deficit. But liberals, too, complain No Child Left Behind is too burdensome on teachers and school districts.

On Friday, Obama announced that he was going to propose an opt-out.  

"We're going to let states, schools and teachers come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future. Because what works in Rhode Island may not be the same thing that works in Tennessee -- but every student should have the same opportunity to learn and grow, no matter what state they live in," Obama said.

Despite distaste for the program, the president's move brought criticism from both sides. 

"Advancing a controversial waivers plan will not only hamper efforts to chart a new course, but will prolong the failed policies of the past," wrote Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee in an op-ed in The Washington Examiner. 

"In the absence of congressional reauthorization, we understand why the Obama administration is taking this action; we are keenly aware of the calls from parents, teachers and administrators for change -- sooner rather than later. Waivers are an imperfect answer to the stalemate in Congress and, at best, can provide only a temporary salve," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Though the union and many Democrats are unlikely to sway from supporting the Education Department, Wilson said getting rid of No Child Left Behind may be the avenue to abolishing a major bureaucracy. 

"Any law that has automatic waivers you gotta question why it was passed in the first place,” he said.

Wilson suggested that Congress could eliminate the department through an evolutionary process adopted by a bipartisan committee tasked with choosing which programs are worth retaining and where they would be placed. He proposed a three-to-five-year dissolution plan that gives everybody time to adjust programs on the state and local level and to give federal workers at the department time to find their next job. 

The odds are long, he admits, though they could go up "substantially" in 2013.

"Anything in this town is going to be less than 50-50," Wilson said. But, there is an "increasing ideological convergence from both the left and the right that there's a real problem that has to be addressed. … Given where we're going and all the indications, by 2013 the finances are going to be in such dire situation that they're going to have to look at bold moves.”