Within hours of the Senate’s narrow confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education secretary, House Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky introduced legislation seeking to abolish the department she now leads.
But with powerful group of Republican co-sponsors behind the bill, including Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the bill could snowball into a more serious assault on the Education Department and its role in trying to elevate U.S. education practices.
“Unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. should not be in charge of our children’s intellectual and moral development,” said Massie in a statement released by his office.
“States and local communities are best positioned to shape curricula that meet the needs of their students. Schools should be accountable. Parents have the right to choose the most appropriate educational opportunity for their children, including home school, public school, or private school,” Massie said.
Rep. Raul Labrador put it more bluntly: “Eliminating the U.S. Department of Education is the most important step we in Congress can take in returning decision making to the local level.”
It’s certainly not the first time the Education Department has come under assault.
“It’s useful to put this bill in historical context,” said Elizabeth Mann, a fellow at Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. She noted that conservatives dating back to President Ronald Reagan have vowed to dismantle the department almost since the time it was created as a Cabinet-level agency in 1980.
While a presidential candidate, Donald Trump initially favored killing the department, but in light of the “huge battle” he encountered getting DeVos confirmed, Mann said, the likely outcry against abolishing the department might “run counter to his interests.”
“The chance of the bill making it to President Trump’s desk is very low,” she predicted, adding that the most likely motivation behind the bill was to send “a signal to constituents saying they support local education decisions.”
Even if the bill were to gain support, dismantling the Education Department would be a massive undertaking.
The department currently employs about 4,400 employees, and had a discretionary budget of $68.1 billion in fiscal 2016. While detractors bristle at Washington’s outsized role in imposing education policies on local authorities, the department nevertheless plays a significant role in distributing federal financial aid for education.
As Education secretary, DeVos will now be responsible for overseeing a grant portfolio that spans 26 federal grant-making organizations and for managing $1.1 trillion in assets, made up primarily of student loans, according to department figures. Unwinding the management of those assets would not only be a time consuming, complicated task, but it also would distract from the administration’s goals of improving education.
“Wiping out Department of Education wouldn’t necessarily get rid of the federal government’s footprint in education,” Mann said. She pointed to federal provisions that come with Title 1 and Pell Grant financial aid programs which were legislated apart from the Education Department and wouldn’t end federal influence even if the Education Department were terminated.
Massie’s bill isn’t likely to make it any easier for DeVos to win the trust of Education Department employees.
In her first meeting with more than 200 employees gathered at the department’s headquarters on Wednesday, she tried to put her bruising confirmation battle and public criticism behind her, saying, “We can and must come together, find common ground and put the needs of our students first.”
“I am committed to working with everyone and anyone — from every corner of the country, from every walk of life, from every background and with those who supported my nomination and those who did not — to protect, strengthen and create new world-class education opportunities for America’s students,” she said.
Education groups, meanwhile, were hesitant to speculate on the bill’s eventual impact.
“I would hope that Congress would see the value that the Education Department provides in supporting states and providing technical assistance to states as well as ensuring that federal education policy is implemented fairly to all students,” said Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association, in a statement to EdScoop.