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What It Would Mean to Abolish the U.S. Department of Education

What It Would Mean to Abolish the U.S. Department of Education

Education Next

Frederick Hess
September 7, 2023
In the first GOP presidential debate last month, four candidates called for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. In doing so, they embraced the same position as front-runner Donald Trump. The pledges generated headlines like Education Week’s “Broad Calls to Ax Education Department and Take On Teachers’ Unions at 1st GOP Debate” as well as the predictable passel of calls from reporters and muckety-mucks wondering how this would work and what it might mean. Given the reaction, it seems worth taking a moment to ask what this proposal means and how likely it is to come to fruition if a Republican claims the White House in 2024.
For starters, eliminating the Department is hardly a new notion. Republicans have been calling for its abolition pretty much since its inception in 1979. In 1980, the year after Jimmy Carter fulfilled a campaign pledge to the National Education Association by creating the Department, Ronald Reagan pledged to dismantle it. What actually happened, though, was that Terrel Bell, Reagan’s first education secretary, launched the blue-ribbon commission that penned “A Nation at Risk” to help forestall such a move by making the case for the Department’s importance.
National figures’ promising to abolish the Department (and then not doing so) has been a staple of GOP politics and party platforms for four decades. In 1994, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” advocated eliminating the Department. In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole did the same. In 2011, the GOP presidential debates featured an infamous moment when ED was one of three cabinet departments that Rick Perry promised to eliminate—and one of the two he could recall. (Some readers may remember Perry’s cringe-worthy deer-in-the-headlights moment: “And I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the . . . what’s the third one there? Let’s see . . . Oops.”)
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