The United States Department of Education began operations in May 1980 after the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was split into two different cabinet-level positions by the Department of Education Organization Act. This action took place during the Carter Administration.
It falls under the supervision of the U.S. Secretary of Education. As of 2018, there were 4,000 employees working in this department, which manages an annual budget of $68 billion. It is also responsible for post-secondary loans, grants, and work-study assistance, student loans, and the establishment of policies to coordinate and administer federal-level assistance for education.
Because of the cost of operations for this department and the fact that education in the U.S. is highly decentralized, there are calls to abolish the Department of Education. Not only would such an action save money, but it would also streamline the government by shifting the focus away from financing and toward curriculum development. Over 27% of the current budget manages the current student loan program.
Here are some of the pros and cons to consider if such a hypothetical move were to be made.
List of the Pros of Abolish the Department of Education
1. Student scores in the United States are not improving under the Department of Education.
The United States has not seen a glimpse of the top 20 in any of the subjects tested in recent years when comparing the assessment results from over 500,000 students in over 65 different countries. Looking at the standards for reading, science, and math, the U.S. falls notably below most Asian countries and significantly under the United Kingdom. Performance levels are remaining the same, but there is no advancement.
While other countries are advancing in these areas, the U.S. remains stagnant. By abolishing the Department of Education, it might be possible to get some fresh ideas into our local educational systems.
2. Its presence may not be Constitutional.
There is an argument to be made that the Department of Education should be abolished because its presence is unconstitutional. Although the matter has not been brought before the Supreme Court since both parties grew to accept its presence in the 1980s, the 10th Amendment does say that the powers not delegated to the government by the Constitution or prohibited by the States are reserved to the state governments. Some argue that the DoE promotes the general welfare of the country, it is not a binding legal decree.
If the structure of the government offices do not follow the vision that the Founding Fathers had for the country, then is it really a legal department?
3. It uses its role in the federal government to do its bidding.
The few times that the Department of Education gets involved on a national level to address schools almost always includes the use of money. When Common Core standards were released by the department, states were not required to implement this system. If they chose not to do so, then the federal government said that it would remove any funding from the state that it was providing for educational purposes. If you wanted to get the resources from No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, then you had to implement what the Secretary directed.
Instead of promoting individualized educational systems that could benefit students, the Department of Education was blackmailing state governments into using its system. Abolishing this department would eliminate this practice at least in the short term.
4. The cost of the Department of Education is phenomenal.
Since its creation, the Department of Education in the United States has spent over $1.4 trillion. This funding, which primarily comes from taxpayer dollars, has had zero impact on test scores. It has come to the point in the United States where teachers must teach to the test in their classrooms to ensure that they can keep their job and their kids can go to a school that is close to their home.
Over the past 40 years, results have stayed flat or declined in most categories, which shows just how wasteful this system happens to be. All the country does is spend more without seeing a return on that investment, which is why there are growing calls to get rid of it.
5. Student loans could be privatized to make them more efficient.
Pell grants would likely transition over to Health and Human Services or the Interior if the Department of Education were to be abolished. That would keep those funds locked in from the government to help with the cost of tuition. The government-backed student loans would then go into the private sector where the free market, not Congress, would get to dictate what the interest rates are for future revisions.
Although such a move would have an adverse impact on those who are in default or on a repayment schedule for eventual forgiveness. Those programs could be brought along as part of the mandate. People would receive better services with less run-around using this option.
6. It would eliminate all centralization from the U.S. educational system.
Community-based education tends to be more effective than centralized systems that attempt to use a one-size-fits-all approach. The idea of not letting any children get left behind is noble, but the U.S. proved that what happens on paper does not always transfer over to real-life situations. NCLB created high-stakes testing elements that punish schools who under-perform even though they have little say about who attends. Then the adequate yearly process was eventually tapped out at 100%, eventually requiring all students to be proficient in 2014. That never happened.
By abolishing the Department of Education, the U.S. could send the states the authority to meet their specific needs. Although there would still be some centralization at the state level, it would be nowhere near the issues seen at the national level.
7. It eliminates the bureaucracy that creeps into the educational system.
By switching to a state-based set of standards instead of following national guidelines, the Department of Education can no longer “muddy the waters” with their bureaucracy. There is nothing wrong with the presence of standards, but they are usually insufficient in their determination of what the actual educational experience is in the United States. Even with clearer and more rigorous requirements in place because of Common Core, there are still states that meet or exceed them right now.
8. Some schools would be able to get more money.
Once the abolition of the Department of Education started, there would be a transition period where any remaining funding in the budget would receive distribution based on the current rules of the system. When it is gone, then there would no longer be money tied to grants, specific behaviors, or curriculum enhancements. That means each state could increase or decreases taxes independently to manage their finances better at the local level.
That means states could manage their levies through property taxes, sales tax, lottery sales, or whatever combination of funding tools they wanted to use as long as they were compliant with local, state, and national laws.
9. There would be less duplication in the national system.
There are hundreds of different agreements that exist right now in the U.S. educational system between individual states, school districts and the Department of Education. Each one has a different value assigned to it as well. That means there are multiple bureaucrats who are sending paperwork back and forth to help manage the system. Numerous processes are duplicated with this effort.
By ending the duplication in the centralized system, taxpayers could save billions of dollars each year in meaningless labor. It would also make each state answerable to their voters for their spending habits. When each community would need to be accountable for every dollar they spend on education, there would likely be much more wisdom in the transactions.
10. It would add more diversity to the American educational experience.
The educational system in the United States is already one of the most diverse in the world. Students from around the globe have access to an almost unlimited number of choices on what and where they can study. Families can move to different communities and still enroll their children in a local school. There are online and homeschooling options to consider throughout the country as well.
This diversification would increase when abolishing the Department of Education because each state could set priorities individually. That means families could avoid spending money on educational items that they feel are not appropriate for themselves or their children. People would have more opportunities to broaden their knowledge base in any field to enhance their future career opportunities.
11. It could reduce student stress in the classroom.
For the students who want to do well with their educational experience, standardized testing can cause high levels of stress. It is such a common problem that some of the testing materials that teachers receive include instructions on what should be done if a student vomits on their exam. Even the most intelligent students in the classroom can feel the grip of anxiety because there is so much pressure to perform in the modern learning environment.
Although getting rid of the Department of Education is not a guarantee that improvements will happen, it could be a step in the right direction. “Although testing may be stressful for some students,” the DoE advises, “testing is a normal and expected way of assessing what students have learned.”
List of the Cons of Abolishing the Department of Education
1. Every state could produce its own set of standards.
Without the Department of Education, there would be the potential for zero oversight over how standards were implemented at the state level. The abolition of the department would create a network of 50 different standards (and even more when considering territories) that could be at odds with one another. The highest standards set in one state could be the lowest acceptable tier in another.
Even with all of the faults that are present with the Department of Education, it creates a standardized education criterium that very state can follow. Removing those guidelines could create even more problems in the future.
2. It would force states to spend even more on their educational needs.
About 17% of the student funding that occurs at the state and local levels comes from the federal government in the United States. In 2013, federal spending on the significant higher education programs in the country totaled $75.6 billion, while another $72 billion was contributed by the states and $9 billion by local communities. If the U.S. were to abolish the Department of Education, then the money from the federal government would immediately disappear.
Some communities and states could pick up the 17% shortfall without much difficulty, but it would create funding problems in other areas. The likely outcome of such a hypothetical event would be teacher layoffs, larger classrooms, and fewer specialist classes that fall outside of the reading, science, mathematics, and writing categories.
3. Some states lack the resources to manage their educational systems.
The Supreme Court in Washington State ruled in 2012 that the government violated its constitution by under-funding its K-12 public school programs. It was called the McCleary Decision, and it caused the governor and lawmakers to put billions of dollars into the educational budget. When full funding didn’t occur in 2015, the Supreme Court issued a contempt order against the state, fining the government $100,000 per day in sanctions.
“We know that our children need more than just a basic education,” Jay Inslee said at the time. “This is not the end of our efforts to ensure schools are able to provide students everything they need to succeed and thrive.” Without the Department of Education, this issue would likely play out in dozens over other states over time as well.
4. Not all states are created equal for funding needs in the United States.
If the Department of Education were to disappear, it would be the richest states in the country that would create the best classroom environments. Those without significant resources would not be able to compete in time, which means their students would fall behind the curve. Poorer communities would likely see fewer graduates and college applications over time. People would then move to the locations where people had the highest median income per household.
There are centralized mechanisms in place with the DoE that help to balance these scales, Most of them work behind the scenes to ensure all students can receive a high-quality education. Without its presence, there would be numerous disadvantages to the system.
5. Some states could change where they decide to send educational funds.
Although the idea of abolishing the Department of Education leads to an implication that states would fund their public schools, the result might be drastically different. Some local governments could decide to send the money to voucher programs, religious institutions, or private schools instead. This setup could force parents into a more expensive program that would require ongoing payments to support their child’s education instead of the public system that runs on taxpayer dollars at the moment.
State governments could also encourage students to move away from independent schools by refusing to give them any money as well. Voters would have a say at the ballot box, but there could be a lot of damage done before changes could be made.
6. There would be a financial loss taken from the U.S. educational export market.
Higher educational services are one of the most lucrative export sectors in the United States. The Department of Education is responsible for the management of this sector, which contributes upwards of $21 billion each year to the U.S. economy. Indirect jobs are created from this activity as well to support daily living activities, tuition costs, and other expenses. 70% of the funding that international students use to obtain an undergraduate degree or higher during their stay in America comes from a source outside of the country as well.
Compared to ten years ago, there are now over 30% more international students studying at a U.S. educational institution.
7. States could create complicated admission processes.
The admissions process in the United States to attend a school is already one of the most complex in the world. At the post-graduate level, you must have a qualifying academic record to attend a top university. You must also have social accomplishments as part of your application package, such as art projects, scientific accomplishments, or robust volunteerism. Some institutions even require participation in contests or competitions for a successful admissions process.
Getting rid of the Department of Education would not eliminate this complexity. If anything, it would add more to it because colleges and university would not bend on their need to have standardized tests.
8. Americans would still only get a glimpse of what makes education meaningful.
The reality of the Department of Education is that it is woefully inadequate in its approach to understanding the entire picture of what it means to be a student. Even if Americans get rid of it, each state would need to go beyond standardized tests to look at how each person’s critical thinking, motivation, persistence, creativity, resilience, reliability, endurance, and enthusiasm contributes to their unique learning experience. Instead of teaching to one specific test, there would be 50 groups of teachers all teaching to the unique one that their state legislature mandates that they use.
Since 2007, 44% of school districts have reduced their curriculum because of budgetary issues and testing protocols. There are fewer creative subjects now than at any time in the public school system. That means an overhaul of the approach is necessary, not just the abolition of the Department of Education.
9. There could be more errors in the grading systems.
Because each state would be responsible for its own educational system with the elimination of the DoE, the risk of scoring errors, grading problems, and other review issues could cost millions of dollars that local governments do not have. In 2010, NCS Pearson delivered their testing results over 30 days late and the accuracy of the results were challenged by over 50% of the superintendents in Florida alone.
Hawaii replaced Harcourt with American Institutes for Research because of grading problems, but then had to regrade almost 100,000 tests because the equipment didn’t register the marks that the students made on their booklets.
Verdict on the Pros and Cons of Abolishing the Department of Education
The Department of Education may not be structured as it once was before the 1980s, but it still serves an oversight purpose that could be useful. Although its primary expenses involve oversight of grants and student loans to pursue a higher education after graduating from a K-12 institution or achieving a high enough GED score, it has recently helped to develop Common Core standards and testing options that track student progress.
The only problem with all of these efforts is the fact that U.S. students are still where they were about 30 years ago while much of the developed world continues to see progress.
In reviewing the pros and cons of abolishing the Department of Education, Americans must make sure that they aren’t trading short-term financial gains for long-term results. Something must change to ensure that U.S. students can compete in a world that’s become ever-more borderless. Getting rid of this department is just one idea of many that could help to finally start turning things around.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.