On April 4, 2016, Fox host Sean Hannity asked Donald Trump if he would eliminate any federal departments if he were to become president. Trump responded by saying that the Department of Education “is massive and it can be largely eliminated.”
Actually, it is the smallest Cabinet-level department in terms of employees, but Republicans have opposed it ever since it began operations in 1980. It was created during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, who wanted the nation to pay more attention to education. Trump picked an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the existence of the department she heads.
Now, in a government reorganization expected to be announced Thursday, the Trump administration will propose merging the Education and Labor departments, reflecting the president’s push to shrink the federal government as well as the Republican view that education policy should be left to the states. The proposal would underscore the belief held by Trump and DeVos that the first purpose of education is to create skilled workers for America’s workforce.
The Trump-DeVos theory of education contrasts with other purposes of education propounded by educators and philosophers, including the notion that public education is meant to help young people develop into active citizens who can participate and contribute to the democratic process and American society. In another view, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey once wrote: “The educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end.”
The Education Department was created in an effort to elevate the subject to Cabinet-level status, consolidate programs that were scattered in different agencies, save money and make federal education programs more accountable. Republicans instantly opposed it, arguing against the expansion of the executive branch and saying education policy is the provenance of states and communities.
Carter didn’t argue with that last point, but he wrote this in the statement issued when he signed the 1979 legislation creating the department,
The time has passed when the Federal Government can afford to give second-level, part-time attention to its responsibilities in American education. If our Nation is to meet the great challenges of the 1980’s, we need a full-time commitment to education at every level of government — Federal, State, and local.
Not long after the agency was created, President Ronald Reagan said he wanted to eliminate it, but he never did. His education secretary, William Bennett, wanted to get rid of it, too, but didn’t. Other Republicans aimed to do the same thing.
In 1995, then-Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) introduced legislation to merge Education and Labor, saying it would save billions of dollars and create a structure that “properly defines the legitimate federal role in education and workforce issues in a global, 21st century economy.”
Under that proposal, as explained in this 1995 Education Week article, a merged department would have one secretary, one deputy secretary and three assistant secretaries. It said that one “assistant secretary for workforce preparation and policy would oversee an office of basic education, an office of higher education, and an office of workforce training and lifelong learning. Two other assistant secretaries would be responsible for civil rights and workplace-policy issues.”
That didn’t happen either.
It isn’t likely that Trump’s proposal will get through Congress. Democrats are expected to oppose it, and it is likely that some Republicans won’t go along with it either.
But the proposal is another reminder of Trump’s determination to upend the U.S. government and recast public education into a process more closely aligned with perceived economic needs.