Abolish the Department of Education

Published October 6, 2011

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has produced a masterful 626-page document dissecting federal spending and recommending cuts of about $9 trillion. Called “Back in Black,” it was released in July and, unfortunately, has been largely under the radar. Let’s hope the six senators and six representatives on the Special Joint Committee charged with federal deficit reduction will give it careful scrutiny.

Coburn’s template for identifying areas to cut, generally speaking, was functionality–whether the federal program is accomplishing what was intended by the legislation creating it.

But here’s another thought: How about using whether the federal government had the constitutional power to enact the federal program in the first place? If that power is not in the Constitution, a program should be abolished.

Take the Department of Education, for example. The time is right to abolish it as unconstitutional.

Nothing in the U.S. Constitution authorizes the federal government to fund education. The federal government tried to justify it to the U.S. Supreme Court indirectly under the Commerce Clause in 1995, by saying young people with high-quality educations foster interstate commerce, but the Court rejected that argument. The Court said the government can lawfully regulate only “commercial” activities under that Clause. Commercial activities may sometimes affect local public education, but education itself is not commercial and thus not subject to federal regulation.

President George W. Bush, of course, famously ignored that holding when he advocated and signed “No Child Left Behind.” Its goal was to improve the educational performance of American students in return for more federal funding. With NCLB an abject failure, now the Obama administration is offering the states “waivers” from its student-testing based standards in return for promises of increased student and teacher performance–and accepting the administration’s preferred mandates. NCLB’s legality is questionable under the Constitution, but Congress has passed it, so it is also legally questionable whether the Obama administration can repeal it by administrative fiat and impose new and different conditions from those in the NCLB law.

Nobody likes NCLB. Congress can’t agree on a reauthorization. Obama wants to write a new law he thinks is better. What’s best, though, is to just get rid of it and get the federal government out of education entirely.

Coburn suggests reducing federal elementary and high school funding and turning it into block grants. But abolishing federal funding, or at least phasing it out over time, isn’t unthinkable. Though federal funding of local public education has more than doubled since 1970, in 2007–08 it comprised just 8.2 percent of per-pupil school spending. Since then, outcomes not only have not improved–they have gotten worse.

“Back in Black” states, “While some policymakers have been successful in creating the message that increased funding and additional programs can serve as an elixir to the significant shortcomings in our education system, our nation’s students have been cheated by both an ineffective federal bureaucracy and an uncertain future of burdensome debt. If the answer were simply to provide more funding, the results from the enormous financial contributions we have made to date would be evident.”

In 2012, Coburn’s report says, about $200 billion in federal funds will by spent by the Department of Education to administer 230 programs. The list is mindboggling. It includes: Early Reading First, Striving Readers, Reading First, Reading Is Fundamental, Even Start, Head Start, Early Head Start, Homeless Education, Native Hawaiian Education, Alaska Native Education, Rural Education, Indian Education, Historic Whaling and Trading Partners etc. …

And the kids still can’t read.

Getting the federal government out of local schools can only make schools better by returning them to local control and saving them from costly federal mandates.

Early in our nation’s history, state constitutions included provisions for state publicly funded education. The nation’s founders could have included such a provision in our Constitution. They did not, and there was good reason why.

School boards are elected locally. They set curriculum and hire teachers and administrators. If students are not being adequately educated, parents and the community have recourse at the polls. Local control is why the founders stayed away from education as a federal responsibility. It’s time for people to take back that power.

Maureen Martin, J.D. ([email protected]) is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.