Conservatives have talked wistfully for years about eliminating the Education Department, but a host of Republican “tea party” candidates this election year are saying it’s time to move beyond talk and force Congress to vote.
From West Virginia to Kentucky to Nevada, GOP Senate candidates have said they favor elimination of the Cabinet office, created as a separate department by President Carter in 1979 to elevate the federal government’s profile on what had been considered a primarily local concern.
Senate candidate Rand Paul, in his Republican primary campaign in Kentucky, was among the first tea-party-backed candidates to revive the idea that the 30-year-old agency had failed students and that the states could do a better job.
“I think I would rather have local school boards, teachers, parents, people … deciding about your schools and not have it in Washington,” he said in a recent debate with the Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Jack Conway.
He has been joined by GOP Senate nominees Sharron Angle in Nevada, John Raese in West Virginia and Mike Lee in Utah, all of whom say they want to see the federal agency abolished. At least 10 Republican tea party candidates have either considered or called for an end to the agency, which for fiscal 2010 had a discretionary budget of $46.8 billion.
Past attempts to shutter the Cabinet department have fallen short, and the GOP effort largely lapsed under President George W. Bush. President Reagan promised to defund the department - formerly part of the Health, Education and Welfare Department - in his 1982 State of the Union address, and the GOP platform in 1996 backed elimination, but the department has survived.
Mr. Bush’s efforts to boost the federal role in education through his No Child Left Behind legislation seemed to put an end to the debate until this year, when tea party candidates rallied around the call to downsize government.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who ran the House Republicans’ campaign committee for the 2000 and 2002 elections and now has a front-row seat on politics as chairman of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, said there’s no political consensus behind erasing the department.
“It may play fine in some primaries. I don’t think it’s going to play fine across the board,” he said.
He said Republicans could try to transfer the departments duties to other agencies, scoring a victory of sorts by eliminating it, but keeping its functions. But he said that, too, would still have to get past President Obama.
“This is not something the current Congress or president would support, but I do,” he told The Washington Times. “We need the decisions regarding classrooms to be made by parents and teachers and other experts at the local level, not people in Washington.”
Mr. Lee is unflinching in his commitment to “rein in spending and the overreaching federal government,” even if it leads to a government shutdown. But he acknowledged that the Education Department cannot be abolished overnight.
“It’s hard to tell how much support there will be,” he said. “I’m not overly optimistic.”