Trump’s Plan to Eliminate the Department of Education is Yet Another in a List of Terrible Ideas

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Tampa, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016.

This column contains a correction.

During recent campaign stops, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is again proposing to eliminate or drastically cut the U.S. Department of Education. Earlier this month, in Florida, he said “there is so much waste” at the department that he plans to cut it—along with the Environmental Protection Agency—down to “shreds” to help pay for his “billionaires-first” tax plan. But, according to new analysis from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Trump’s proposal could mean that more than 8 million low-income students—roughly the population of New York City—would lose millions of dollars for college.

Equally as troubling, Trump’s proposal also means that over 490,000 teacher positions could be eliminated—14 percent of K-12 public school teachers nationwide. This would have a terrible effect on the U.S. economy. The loss of that many jobs would be like UPS—one of the country’s largest employers, with over 350,000 American workers—going out of business.

Using official budget figures from the Department of Education, CAPAF’s full analysis shows just how far reaching the impact of Trump’s proposals could be on students, teachers, and families. Our analysis examined the largest programs that the agency runs in order to demonstrate what their elimination would mean for the country and for each state. Nationally, according to that analysis:

  • 8 million students every year would lose Pell grants
  • 490,000 or more teacher positions could be eliminated
  • $1.3 trillion in student loans would be at risk
  • 23.9 million* low-income students would lose $15 billion of Title I funding annually
  • 5 million children and students with disabilities would lose $12.7 billion used every year to ensure that they receive a quality education
  • 750,000 or more 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 $1.1 billion per year for their schools
  • 4,000 or more rural school districts would lose more than $175 million used annually to help improve the quality of teaching and learning in many hard-to-staff schools
  • $700 million used by states to support the 5 million English language learners currently in public schools—representing close to 10 percent of all students—would be cut

Click on individual states to see how they would be affected.

For decades, the federal government has helped to ensure that factors such as race, income, language, and disability are not barriers to quality schooling. The Department of Education leads these efforts by providing protections and supplemental resources for disadvantaged students. It does this important work with one of the smallest bureaucracies in the federal government and with personnel costs amounting to a “small percentage of their total budget,” according to a recent CBO report.

U.S. high school graduation rates are hitting all-time highs; dropout rates are at historical lows; college going rates are close to the highest they have ever been; and test scores across the country are improving. But the elimination of the protections and resources from the Department of Education could significantly hinder or even reverse these gains. Doing away with these programs would also come into effect while federal funds continue to help states and school districts fill funding gaps created by the Great Recession, as most states currently provide less support for K-12 education than in 2008 when the recession started. States such as Pennsylvania and Ohio—which were dramatically hard hit by this recession—would each lose well over $ 2 billion annually in federal education funding if Trump has his way.

Making matters worse, the claimed savings from Trump’s proposed cuts to the Department of Education budget—or even the complete elimination of the agency—would do very little to actually pay for his tax plan. While Trump has been vague and inconsistent about the dramatic changes he is proposing to the U.S. tax system, the Department of Education’s annual discretionary budget is less than $70 billion, covering a fraction of the $9.5 trillion 10-year price tag of Trump’s tax proposal, according to estimates based on a plan that Trump released in September 2015. In fact, the Department of Education’s annual discretionary spending is roughly 6 percent of the entire federal budget and pales in comparison to the nation’s annual discretionary defense spending, which makes up over 50 percent of the U.S. annual budget. It’s clear that Trump is ignoring an earlier pledge to make education a top priority of the federal government.

Calls to abolish the Department of Education have been made a number of times over the years in the name of both reducing the size of government and fiscal restraint. But, perhaps there is no example more informative to highlight the misguided shortsightedness of such calls than former President Ronald Regan’s attempt—and subsequent reversal—to take an axe to the Department of Education in the early 1980s. During Reagan’s first presidential campaign—and later in his very first State of the Union Address—he called for the abolishment of the U.S. Department of Education. At the time, he and others claimed such a move would be the source of “major savings,” further stating that the department’s existence was a classic case of federal overreach. However, during his time in office, Reagan’s position evolved to the point where he helped broker a deal in 1985 to keep the department, and, during his final year in office, he would propose what were—at the time—record increases to its budget.

Reagan’s reassessment of the Department of Education and its mission began with the release of the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.” The study raised serious concerns about the country’s increasing failure to deliver quality elementary and secondary education to students, especially in communities of color and neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. It found that the then current education system was “being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity” and recommended that it was “essential … for government at all levels to affirm its responsibility for nurturing the Nation’s intellectual capital.” President Reagan listened and stated soon after the report’s release that, “I have no intention of recommending the abolition of the Department to the Congress.”

Supporting and protecting the country’s students with a keen focus on those most at risk should be a priority of every president. However, Trump’s plan to sacrifice resources for America’s students—particularly the most vulnerable—to pay for tax cuts that would unduly benefit the country’s top earners is as shortsighted as it is callous. Trump should learn from the important lesson President Reagan learned some 30 years ago.


This analysis used official fiscal year 2016 spending data and FY 2017 congressional justifications from the U.S. Department of Education to demonstrate individual state and national funding implications of Trump’s proposal to eliminate the agency.

To calculate the number of teachers who could potentially lose their job as a result of Trump’s proposal, the author added the most recent average teacher salary by state figures from the National Center for Education Statistics to the representative statistic of costs associated with education and health-services occupations from the Department of Labor. Subsequently, the author divided the total dollar amount each state receives for elementary and secondary education from the Department of Education by the above sum.

To calculate students affected by this proposal, the analysis multiplied the most recent data for state-by-state pupil-to-teacher ratios from the National Center on Education Statistics by the number of teachers affected from above.

This calculation prioritized the transparency of potential effects to simply show how important the funding from the Department of Education is to all states and territories.

Will Ragland is the Campaign Director of Education Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Ulrich Boser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The authors would like to thank Coleton Whitaker, a Campaign Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, for assistance with this analysis.

* Correction, February 28, 2017: A misprint in this column has been corrected; the column now includes the accurate number of low-income students who would lose $15 billion of Title I funding annually.