The Department of Education (DOE) is one of the most destructive federal agencies because it attempts to control the flow of ideas and information by controlling public schools, including higher education. If a school does not comply, then it gets no federal money. Educators who rebel outright, such as home-schooling parents, are reined in by an ever-tightening net of regulations.
Defining people’s thoughts and beliefs is the ultimate form of social control. In the foreword to his dystopian novel, Brave New World (1946 edition), Aldous Huxley commented, “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” Public schools are both expressions of and a training ground for that army.
Happily, the DOE may be one of the easiest federal agencies to abolish because political arguments for abolition have the advantage of being backed by facilitating circumstances. That makes the DOE an agency to target by those who wish to roll back government wherever possible.
One circumstance that favors the abolition or severe reduction of the DOE is historical precedent. The Cabinet-level department is a comparatively new creation, which was signed into law in 1980 by Jimmy Carter. A Cabinet-level DOE had been established in the 1860s but it was quickly demoted to an Office and stripped of presidential prestige. Responsibility for education was then scattered across various government departments and agencies. Eventually, the Office of Education fell under the auspices of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
When Carter proposed reinstating the agency’s Cabinet status, the proposal met stiff political resistance from Republicans and other vested interests. The bill narrowly passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 210 to 206. Even then, it was not clear whether the widely disparate House and Senate versions of the bill could be reconciled.
The Spokesman-Review newspaper (July 12, 1979) explained, “As it emerged from the House, the bill had been amended to permit voluntary prayer in public schools, to ban busing of students to achieve racial desegregation, to prohibit use of racial or sexual quotas for admission to colleges and to bar abortions [sic] in the proposed new department’s medical facilities for employees.”
The newspaper continued, “Opposing creation of the department was a coalition that seldom before had ever joined forces. These included a majority of House Republicans, who feared the bill would lead to federal control of local education, as well as creation of another giant bureaucracy; and a large number of liberal Democrats who feared creation of the single-issue department would crumble the education-labor-health-civil-rights block that has wielded power over social legislation.”
The constitutionality of the DOE was hotly questioned. Opponents of creating the Department argued that the federal government had no constitutional authority to do so because the word “education” did not appear in the U.S. Constitution. Federal intrusion into education would be an executive overreach.
Supporters pointed to the Commerce Clause as justification in establishing the DOE. The relevant passage reads, “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” This was interpreted as assigning authority to the federal government over any matter that influenced national commerce. An educated populace was of national concern, advocates claimed.
Republicans countered with the Tenth Amendment to the Bill of Rights: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Education was a states’ rights matter and no business of the federal government. That argument also facilitates the abolition of the DOE, since states’ rights is an increasingly popular position in the mainstream.
Opposition to a DOE was not restricted to Congress, however. The Spokesman-Review commented on the unions and general labor movement, which wielded immense political influence. “Strong backing came from the National Education Association (NEA) with its 1.8 million membership of teachers and educators. Opposing the new department were the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and a number of other educational groups and individuals.” The organizations were rivals. In her book Jimmy Carter as Educational Policymaker: Equal Opportunity and Efficiency, Deanna L. Michael observed, “Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, opposed the creation of the department of education and lived in New York…. [His] opposition may have influenced the New York Times” (p. 162).
Maurice R. Berube’s book, American Presidents and Education, noted, “A strong critic of the proposed Department of Education was teacher [and NEA] union rival, Albert Shanker … [He] lambasted the idea as adding another bureaucratic layer to education mainly for the reason of ‘prestige’, which he felt was ‘not a good reason’. Others perceived Shanker’s opposition [as being] on the grounds that he feared the NEA would dominate a new education department” (p. 51). History generally views the DOE’s creation as Carter’s quid pro quo for the NEA’s endorsement of his 1976 presidential campaign. Thus, Shanker’s concerns seem legitimate, although they do not preclude self-interest. (Note: some sources claim the AFL also supported the creation of the DOE but that appears to be inaccurate.)
Controversy over the DOE’s existence continued to boil over for decades. In the 1980 presidential election campaign, for example, Ronald Reagan prominently pledged to eliminate the DOE from his Cabinet and to reduce federal spending on education. During his presidency (1981–89), however, the DOE remained a Cabinet post, and the federal spending expanded. Nevertheless, candidate Reagan clearly believed that weakening federal authority over education would appeal to the voting public.
The DOE reemerged as an election issue in 1996. Sitting President Bill Clinton promised to strengthen education across the board, making it his top priority. Republican nominee Bob Dole pledged to “cut out” the DOE. At that time, the official GOP platform itself called for the abolition of the DOE on constitutional grounds.
In the last few years, constitutional arguments against the DOE have revived and become more frequent. A 2011 Cato Institute article, “Yes, the Department of Education Is Unconstitutional,” is an example. Adjunct scholar Adam B. Schaeffer quoted then-Congresswoman Michele Bachmann as stating, “[The] Constitution does not specifically enumerate nor does it give to the federal government the role and duty to superintend over education that historically has been held by the parents and by local communities and by state governments.”
That same year, Neal McCluskey commented in the Washington Times on Obama’s proposed budget for the DOE. In “End Fed Ed,” he wrote, “[Except] for granting jurisdiction over the District of Columbia and empowering the feds to prohibit schooling discrimination by states, the Constitution gives Washington zero authority to meddle in education. That means every federal education program, and the department itself, is unconstitutional…. The Founders gave the feds no education power for good reason. They knew that a national government couldn’t effectively govern education or anything else that works best when tailored to the unique needs of individual people and communities…. History has borne their wisdom out.”
The surging backlash against public schools is yet another circumstance that favors the chance of abolition. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of discontent is the rise in home-schooling. According to both the DOE’s National Center for Education Statistics and the Home School Legal Defense Association, the total number of home-schooled students rose 17 percent in the five years from 2007 to 2013. Widespread discontent with the poor quality of education imposed by the Common Core program is likely to hike those numbers.
Libertarians are often asked where their drastic reduction of the state would begin. The DOE is enormously destructive of liberty; it is also unconstitutional, unpopular, and a recent invention. A good answer to the question is, “Abolish the DOE.”
This article was originally published in the March 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.