Former Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently said, “[T]he Department of Education should not exist.” This statement comes as no surprise; after all, Trump originally campaigned to cut its programs “down into shreds,” and DeVos proposed drastic cuts to both federal student aid and core K-12 education funding when she ran the agency.
Fortunately, Congress repeatedly ignored the previous administration’s extreme budget proposals, even when Republicans held both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. But those same extreme ideas are back and are garnering broad support from a new crop of Republican leaders, including Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL). In his role as National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, Sen. Scott laid out a controversial and comprehensive policy plan for his caucus earlier this year that has gained widespread acclaim among conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, who authored a similar blueprint, “Contract with America,” in 1994. Scott’s plan includes shuttering the U.S. Department of Education, eliminating the $75 billion in federal education funding it administers, and sunsetting civil rights laws it enforces.
To be clear, efforts such as Sen. Scott’s are an attempt to rob low-income students and students with disabilities, to whom most of these investments are targeted. To make matters worse, many of these students are trying to make up for massive learning gaps two years into a global pandemic.
Since 1980, when the Department of Education was created, American high school graduation rates have increased from 72 percent to 88 percent.
There are few, if any, policies more preposterous than eliminating federal education funding. For decades, federal funds helped to ensure that income, race, language, geography, sexual orientation, and disability are not insurmountable hurdles to receiving high-quality schooling. These federal investments in education not only have helped level the playing field but also continue to make the United States competitive in the global economy. In fact, since 1980, when the Department of Education was created, American high school graduation rates have increased from 72 percent to 88 percent, a near record high; the percentage of individuals older than age 25 with at least a bachelor’s degree has increased from 22.5 percent to 39.2 percent; and the percentage of those with an associate degree or higher has increased from 33 percent to 50 percent since 1995, the earliest data available.
The devastating impacts of eliminating federal education funding
Doing away with these federal education resources would defund several critical programs, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA mandates that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education. Indeed, before 1975, children with disabilities were regularly turned away from public schools. Eliminating this law’s funding or the mandates would needlessly harm these children and undo decades of progress.
Under plans similar to Sen. Scott’s, federal funding for foundational programs in K-12 public schools—which enroll 91 percent of students—would disappear. The primary revenue source for public schools across the country—local property taxes and state taxes—would become, for all intents and purposes, the sole source, creating equity concerns. School districts with lower property values where the local tax base cannot adequately support public education, including school districts with large military bases and Native American reservations, would be less able to meet the targeted needs of their students, especially low-income students and students with disabilities. States and districts have worked hard to address these disparities over the years, but the efforts vary drastically from state to state and district to district. Federal education funding helps to minimize this funding gap through Title I and other programs. With federal dollars making up 8 percent of an average school district’s budget, these funds are important equalizers that go a long way.
Eliminating the department and the funding it administers means eliminating Pell Grants, which give students from low-income families up to $6,495 annually to attend college.
In terms of postsecondary education, the Department of Education administers programs such as Pell Grants and the Federal Work-Study Program to make college and workforce training more affordable and accessible. Eliminating the department and the funding it administers means eliminating Pell Grants, which give students from low-income families up to $6,495 annually to attend college. Just as crucially, the Department of Education is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws such as Title IX, a protection that has ensured opportunity for a generation of American students.
Eliminating a Cabinet agency such as the Education Department, along with the funding and programs it provides, would require a massive legislative and administrative effort. This is why similar calls for this in the past have not been taken very seriously. But given the recent precedent-busting decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court that have shifted a great deal of power to state legislatures; the potential for a significant ideological shift in Congress next year; the idea once more being voiced by someone who previously ran the agency; and the proposal being included in Sen. Scott’s Republican plan, it is worth outlining what specifically this proposal could mean for students, families, and teachers.
Using official budget figures from the Department of Education and survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards and the National Center for Education Statistics, the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s analysis below shows the far-reaching impacts if federal education programs were eliminated, nationally and by state. (see methodology) It looks at many of the agency’s largest key programs and what it might mean if they no longer existed.
Nationally, the analysis shows that eliminating the Department of Education could mean:
- More crowded classrooms: An estimated 433,000 teacher positions or their funding equivalent could be at risk of elimination. That’s roughly 14 percent of the teacher workforce, and more than 7 million students might be affected by the loss of a teacher—something this nation can ill-afford given pandemic-era teacher retention concerns.
- $16.5 billion worth of annual cuts to K-12 public schools: 25 million students in schools with high rates of poverty, more than the total population of Florida, would lose $16.5 billion of Title I funding annually. These resources provide financial assistance to school districts with high levels of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children have access to a quality education.
- Steep budget cuts for schools serving military families and Native Americans: At least 781,000 students from military families, Native American students, students living in U.S. territories, and students living on federal property or Native American lands would lose $1.4 billion per year for their schools.
- Fewer resources for rural teachers and students: At least 4,200 rural school districts would lose more than $185 million used annually to help improve the quality of teaching and learning in many hard-to-staff schools.
- Lost protections against discrimination for students with disabilities: 7.3 million children and students with disabilities, larger than the total population of Arizona, would lose $14 billion used every year to ensure that they receive a quality education.
- Significantly fewer Americans attending college: 7 million students, roughly the total population of Virginia, could lose aid for postsecondary education, including the 34 percent of all undergraduate students who receive Pell Grants.
A more complete breakdown of funding lost by state can be found here.
A brief history of efforts to eliminate the Education Department
To be sure, eliminating the Department of Education is a well-worn and unpopular idea. The most notorious example of this failed pitch came in 1982, less than two years after the Education Department was founded. In his first State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan called for the “dismantling” of the department, claiming it would result in major savings; but by his final year in office, he not only had negotiated a deal to keep it, but had also proposed what was then a record budget increase to the agency. A major factor in Reagan’s reversal was the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report, which found the United States consistently failing students at nearly every level. Reagan completely reversed his stance on the department soon after the report’s release, saying, “I have no intention of recommending the abolition of the department to Congress.”
President Reagan wisely learned that “dismantling” the Department of Education and its programs would hurt the nation’s ability to compete globally. In the years since Reagan’s presidency, the department’s programs have proved even more popular and widely used, materially affecting the lives and well-being of millions of American families. Importantly, the agency does this work with a lean staff of slightly more than 4,100, the smallest of any Cabinet-level agency—by far. For comparison, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security employs north of 212,600, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a staff of more than 92,000.
Of course, there are areas where the federal education programs and funding could be improved to ensure the department’s services reach those who need them the most. The Center for American Progress has outlined many ways the Education Department could accomplish this moving forward, including by using funding to provide better access to great teaching for those who need it the most; implementing better use of tailored learning plans for students with disabilities, as required by law; and issuing proposals to make colleges more affordable and accountable.
Certainly, there are massive challenges in education that need the attention of federal leaders and lawmakers, such as the unacceptable achievement gaps that break down along racial and socioeconomic lines; woefully underfunded programs for students with disabilities; and college unaffordability and the student debt crisis. However, considering the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education should not be one of solutions to those challenges.
This analysis used official fiscal year 2021 spending data and fiscal year 2023 congressional justifications from the U.S. Department of Education to demonstrate individual state and national funding implications if the agency and the funding it administers were eliminated.
To calculate the elementary and secondary funding cut equivalent of teacher jobs as a result of this proposal, the author divided the most recent average teacher salary according to state figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) by the percentage of total compensation that goes toward wages and salaries associated with primary, secondary, and special education school teachers from the U.S. Department of Labor to get the total employer cost for employing public K-12 school teachers. Subsequently, the author divided the total dollar amount that each state receives for elementary and secondary education from the Department of Education by the above sum. To calculate the percentage of the teacher workforce represented by the above figure, the author divided the funding cut equivalent of teacher jobs for each state by the total number of teachers in the state as of 2019, which is the latest available data from the NCES.
In regard to the figure indicating the potential teacher positions at risk, the author acknowledges that there are programs that make up the total funding amount that states receive for elementary and secondary education that may not go directly toward teacher compensation; however, if that funding were altogether cut and the services it funded remained, other state and local revenue that would need to fill the hole, leaving the equivalent funding cut equal to roughly 433,000 teacher positions.
To calculate the number of students affected by this proposal, the analysis multiplied the most recent data for state-by-state pupil-to-teacher ratios from the NCES by the number of teachers affected from above.