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.
“Whether you have a department or not is more symbolic, but I don’t see any way to abolish the Department of Education, that Obama’s going to sign that bill,” he said.
Mr. Lee, who as the GOP nominee in Utah is almost assured of winning the seat next week, acknowledged the long odds.
“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.”
Mrs. Angle said she will work to defund the agency if elected, and has vowed to challenge the federal government’s constitutional standing to set education policy under the 10th Amendment.
Mr. Raese told The Times earlier this month that the department “has failed miserably.”
“I think it’d be better off just giving every state $1 billion. You’d be ahead,” he said. “When you look at outcomes-based education, when you look at school-to-work, No Child Left Behind, the list is endless of failures.”
As the idea appears to gain momentum and legitimacy, some Republican incumbents on the campaign trail are highlighting the movement to eliminate the department.
“There’s not a hint in the Constitution that we ought to have it,” Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican and a member of the House’s Tea Party Caucus, said during a panel discussion last week. “And there’s not a shred of evidence that it’s done anything to improve education.”
Democrats say the push to cut the department highlights the radicalism of tea party candidates.
In Colorado, freshman Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, has aired ads featuring a video of Republican challenger Ken Buck saying, “We don’t need a Department of Education.”
Republicans accuse Mr. Obama and other Democrats of exaggerating the threat that tea-party-backed candidates pose to education programs and the Education Department.
“Instead of having an honest discussion about bringing back fiscal responsibility to Washington, D.C., the president is setting up a straw man with his claims about education funding,” said Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who is in line for chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee if Republicans take control of the chamber.
No Child Left Behind is due for reauthorizing, and Mr. Obama, in an interview published Monday, told the National Journal that he hopes to get Republicans’ cooperation on that, whatever the outcome of the election.
Critics of eliminating the Education Department also say the move would reduce the federal budget by just 6 percent, and that lower-income Americans would be hurt the most by the move. For example, eliminating or downsizing the agency could end or reduce Pell Grants for college students and the Title 1 program for schools and districts with large numbers of students from lower-income families.
Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, said the key issue in measuring the value of a separate federal department for education is “how to get money and decision-making back closest to the child.”
She said the conservative think tank has praised congressional efforts to allow states to apply only once a year for federal funding, instead of for each program.
“Right now, the red tape far outweighs the 10 percent of funds that come down,” she said.
c Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.