Grassroots activists push to disband the Department of Education
Calls to close the agency date back almost to its founding
As the mother of three boys in South Carolina public schools, Sheri Few began advocating and organizing for education policy in 2000. Over the years, she focused on sex education concerns, Common Core standards, and equal-time teaching for intelligent design. “Things weren’t nearly as bad 20 years ago as they are today,” she said. In 2014, Few’s state organization merged with like-minded parents in other states under the name U.S. Parents Involved in Education (USPIE), with the goal of abolishing the federal Department of Education and its education mandates.
Few, now the president of USPIE, said her views on the government’s role in education stem from constitutional concerns.
“The U.S. Constitution enumerates the powers of the federal government, and anything not delineated in the Constitution is left to states,” she said. “Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that education would be a responsibility of the federal government—we should have never gotten involved with that to begin with.”
This summer, former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos voiced support for the elimination of the department she once led. “I personally think the Department of Education should not exist,” DeVos said at a Moms for Liberty event. She served as secretary of education under President Donald Trump until she resigned following the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol. Trump even argued for abolishing the department during his presidential campaign. Trump staffers were not the first—or the last—to call for the end of the Department of Education.
In February 2021, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., introduced a surprisingly concise bill. The full text of the bill read: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2022.” Massie set forth similar bills in 2017 and 2019, receiving 12 co-sponsors—all Republicans save for one Libertarian—each year. In 2021, there were 20 co-sponsors.
At an education policy conference in September hosted by the Federalist Society and the Defense of Freedom Institute, Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and former assistant secretary of education during the Reagan administration, said the Department of Education will likely continue.
“I think that’s a moot question,” he said. “I don’t think what matters most is the name of the agency on the door—I think what matters most is what goes on in there.” Finn raised concerns about excess funds and projects but said he would support additional funding for the department’s work in statistics reporting.
Congress formed the Department of Education during the Carter administration in 1979. Technically, President Andrew Johnson approved the first Department of Education in 1867, but Congress downgraded the agency to the Office of Education the following year. In 1980, Ronald Reagan made a campaign promise to close the newborn department but faced opposition from his first education secretary, as well as members of Congress. Republican presidential candidates in 2012 and 2016 echoed earlier calls for abolishing the agency.
Max Eden, a research fellow specializing in education at the American Enterprise Institute, said proponents of abolishing the Department of Education generally focus on two arguments: first of all, the department is an example of bureaucratic excess. Secondly, it showcases government overreach.
“The argument is, if the department were abolished, and the money were to come down to schools with fewer strings attached, then you would actually improve local education governance, because there’d be less box-checking, less looking over your shoulder, and more ‘How do we make the most of the resources that we have?’” Eden said. He added that many voters also worry that the Department of Education gives “a blank check for social progressives” to push their views in schools.
According to Eden, the main education role of the federal government is leveling the field financially for disadvantaged school districts. Beyond that role, he said he is sympathetic to the case for abolition but thinks it has never been likely. “There’s just a vast disparity between Republican rhetoric on this and their actual governing priorities,” he said.
“We don’t believe it’s impossible,” Few said, though she added that the idea is more often a campaign point than an actual goal. She pointed to Rep. Massie’s one-sentence bill as an example. “Where are the details? … You’ve got to have a responsible approach, shifting the responsibilities, again, back to the states.” In 2017, U.S. Parents Involved in Education released a report titled “USPIE Blueprint to Close USED and End Federal Education Mandates.” The document outlines five steps, including privatizing college loans.
Few said that returning education decisions to the states mirrors the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson to return abortion decisions to states. Some states would end up on more liberal ends of the spectrum, while others would lean conservative.
After the 2020 presidential and congressional elections, USPIE shifted to focus on building up chapters and local support for the overall goal of ending federal involvement. But Few added that may be changing.
“We absolutely believe that the climate now is much better for us,” she said.