Republicans have been promising to shut down the federal Department of Education ever since it was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, some 43 years ago. At the first GOP presidential debate on August 23, four contenders said they would end the department if elected. While trusting a politician’s promise is a dubious gamble, closing down Fed‐Ed is good policy.
At the GOP debate in Milwaukee on August 23, Vivek Ramaswamy said, “Let’s shut down the head of the snake: the Department of Education. Take that $80 billion [and] put it in the hands of parents across this country. This is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Three other Republicans on the stage echoed that point: former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The fiscal year 2023 budget for the Department of Education is $79.6 billion, which, rounded off, is the $80 billion cited by Ramaswamy. The department employs 4,400 people, according to its website.
As the Cato Institute’s 2022 Handbook for Policymakers states, “The Constitution gives the federal government no authority to exercise control over elementary and secondary education, including by spending money and attaching conditions to the funds, the primary mode by which Washington has influenced education.”
America’s Founders believed that education was “best left in the hands of parents and civil society—the families and communities closest to the children—and certainly not in a distant national government,” reports the Cato Handbook. “Nearly 60 years of experience with major and, until very recently, constantly expanding federal meddling in K–12 education have proved them right.”
Some public schools, of course, do an excellent job, and some schools are total failures. And no one denies that many teachers in our public schools are selfless, dedicated, and hard‐working educators. But the federal government should not be involved. It’s unconstitutional, period. It also apparently does no good.
For instance, educational assessments of U.S. public school students are not encouraging. This suggests that the $80 billion spent by the Department of Education might be better spent if it was left in the hands of parents and students.
In December 2019, the Washington Post reported, “Teenagers in the United States continue to lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe in reading, math and science, according to results of an international exam that suggest U.S. schools are not doing enough to prepare young people for the competitive global economy.”
That test is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The exam is administered to 15‐year‐olds in 79 countries every three years. In the 2018 PISA results, the U.S. ranked 13th in reading, behind such countries as China, Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, Ireland and Poland, reported the Post.
In science, U.S. students ranked 18th and, in math, U.S. students came in 37th, behind students from Russia, Iceland, Latvia and England.
In another measure, the National Center for Education Statistics found that for the school year 2022–23, “The average scores for 13‐year‐olds declined 4 points in reading and 9 points in mathematics compared to the previous assessment administered during the 2019–20 school year. Compared to a decade ago, the average scores declined 7 points in reading and 14 points in mathematics.”
The federal government has intervened in America’s public schools for decades, starting as far back as 1957 with the National Defense Education Act. By most every measure, that intervention has not made things better for educating our children.
There’s no constitutional warrant for federal involvement in K–12 education, except perhaps in a few narrow areas: accommodating school choice for military families, Native Americans, and in the District of Columbia, which is overseen by Congress.
As the Cato Handbook notes, “In 1943, the U.S. Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, chaired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, published a document that included the following: ‘Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education? A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.’”
How ironic that Republican presidential contenders in 2023 agree with the liberal FDR—now that’s bipartisanship!