“I don’t think you’d notice if the whole department was gone tomorrow,” Rand Paul said of the U.S. Department of Education at a University of Chicago Institute of Politics panel last year. The Kentucky senator has been saying this for years, but he isn’t the only one. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have also said the department of education is “nonessential” or worth scrapping completely.
But what would happen if indeed, there was no Department of Education?
The department as we know it now, a cabinet-level agency, was created by the Department of Education Organization Act, which President Jimmy Carter signed into law in 1979. The department officially opened in 1980 and started with an annual budget of $12 billion. Prior to the law, the department of education changed its name several times since its creation in 1867.
The Department of Education’s responsibilities include gathering data to assess how well certain programs and grants are working, awards Pell grants federal financial aid through loans and provides oversight over state policies to prevent discrimination.
We wouldn’t have a federal department to administer Pell Grants to students.
The Department of Education provided $27.13 billion in grants nationally for the fiscal year of 2015. The department has a budget of $67.1 billion for discretionary appropriations, including discretionary Pell Grant funding. It ranks fifth in the number of awards given by all federal agencies.
More students than ever are relying on financial aid to fund their education, with the percentage of full-time undergraduate students at four-year colleges receiving aid rising from 75 to 85 percent from the 2006–2007 school year to the 2011–2012 school year. According to The College Board, state grant aid only grew by 11 percent from 2008–2008 school year to the 2012–2013 school year while federal grant aid doubled during the same period.
There wouldn’t be any oversight over states when they break civil rights laws.
“The department makes sure that money goes through those programs to get through to the places that need it, and without the department there’s no way to actually administer the hundreds of programs that are funded through the department,” said Scott Sargrad, director of standards and accountability for education policy at the Center for American Progress and former deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.
“The role of the federal government is to make sure the states follow the law. There needs to be a body that takes care of that, because a lot of there are still places that are not complying with the law or following the rules and regulations,” he said.
Control of schools belongs mostly to state governments, which control education budgets for public school districts and universities. Common Core standards, which have often been misrepresented as a curriculum mandated by the federal government, are simply standards adopted by the states, which are maintained by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.
Yet, there is a perception that the federal government has “taken over” public schools due to the implementation of new teacher evaluation models, Common Core standards and new methods of testing, said Max Marchitello, policy analyst for pre-K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress.
“All of these things are happening at once, so we probably should have predicted this kind of general resistance to that change. It seems like an easy bully to point to, to say the federal government is pushing this,” Marchitello said. “Lamar Alexander said that we need to get rid of the ‘national school board,’ so Rand Paul is just taking that critique to the next level, and saying we need to purge ourselves of this oversight and let the states do what they want to do.”
The office of elementary and secondary education oversees quality of education in said schools throughout the country through School Support and Rural Education, Impact Aid Programs, the Office of Early Learning and many other programs. The Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program prepares disadvantaged children in low-income areas by working to sharpen the skills of teachers in their communities.
There wouldn’t be a department to check on rampant inequality between low-income school districts and wealthy districts.
If the Department of Education were to be abolished, any oversight to protect disadvantaged children from receiving a sub-par education would go to the states, and historically, the states have proven they’re not capable of handling that responsibility, Marchitello said.
“If you look at the last 50 years, or all of history, of state behaviors and rampant inequity at the state level in U.S. Supreme Court cases, it’s reasonable to think you’d see divestment from underserved communities, in favor of either saving money or to redirecting funds to places with more political clout and wealth,” Marchitello said.
As far-fetched as the idea may seem to some, Rand’s views aren’t so different from those of Republicans more than four decades ago, who argued the department was unconstitutional because the Constitution didn’t mention education and that the creation of the department would hurt local control of schools.
The increased focus on education began when Congress passed laws providing aid to schools in communities most affected by World War II and the GI Bill encouraged Americans to seek a postsecondary education. The Cold War emphasized the importance of innovation, which facilitated laws such as the National Defense Education Act to support loans to college students. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s gave birth to legislation such as 1965’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which launched the Title I program to help level the playing field for disadvantaged kids.
“When Title I first happened, there was a smaller budget and smaller focus, so the lens was just focusing on ‘Let’s give money to poor kids,’” Marchitello explained.
However, when that money was left unchecked, it didn’t necessarily go to the communities that needed it most, which made reformers realize there was a need for more oversight and accountability in how the funds were distributed.
“We quickly found out by 1970 that there was huge malfeasance and the money was being used to perpetuate segregation, so the law had to be amended to add fiscal protections,” Marchitello said. “You need the department to check on those things, and expand the law and serve additional student needs and not just simply spend money on low income students but create standards for English learners or to ensure states are paying attention to students with disabilities.”
We would have inconsistent education data, as the quality of data would vary among the states.
If the department shut down, we might also lose a treasure trove of data gathered from across the country on educational outcomes and the demographics of student and teacher populations. This data helps the department make decisions on whether grants were effective, but without this data, it’s hard to tell whether a program is worth keeping.
“It’s also the role of the department to collect data and do research and evaluate programs as well as make sure the government is funding things that work and getting information out to schools with effective practices,” Sargrad pointed out.
Data collection in the states taking over management of education data may be spotty at best, since many states don’t have the resources to maintain that information, Marchitello said.
“Data collection would get shuffled off to the states, which they don’t have the money for or capacity to do, so that’s a huge problem. Let’s assume for a minute that they had the infrastructure to do it,” he said. “Maybe Massachusetts and New York could do it because they’re wealthy states, but about a North Dakota or a Mississippi? Kids in those schools don’t have the same kind of reporting or accountability attached to it, and so compliance would be impossible.”
There would be more gender discrimination within schools.
Under Title IX, no one can be excluded, or denied benefits from a federally funded education program on the basis of sex. The federal code also allowed the department to open investigations into colleges for their mishandling of sexual assault cases. Women’s athletics were transformed by the legislation, offering female athletes far more opportunities to succeed. Title IX requires that all colleges benefiting from federal funds send the department self-evaluations to reassure the department that it’s following the law during the time it receives that federal money. If these schools no longer receive federal money, as the department no longer exists, the process to check on gender discrimination within schools is also abolished.
There would be no way to hold schools accountable for the funds they receive.
In recent news, the Department of Education held Corinthian Colleges accountable for predatory behavior and fraud by investigating the company and fining it $30 million. Corinthian shut down its remaining campuses only a couple weeks later. The department has been investigating other for-profit colleges with similar reputations for misrepresenting career opportunities and has begun a formal process for forgiving student loans after instances of fraud by universities.
The department also announced it will be providing $24.8 million for 67 school districts in 26 states that will establish and expand existing counseling programs in an effort to reduce disciplinary referrals, raise grades and increase student attendance. Over the years, it has increased the Pell Grant allowance by nearly $1,000, streamlined the process of applying for student aid and made the first two years of community college free beginning in January 2015.