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That Time the Education Department Was Eliminated

The first incarnation of the department, that is.

The latest in an intermittent series looking back at groundbreaking, newsmaking, appalling and amusing events in government history.

Do you remember when limited-government advocates killed off the Education Department? Arguing that the feds should “leave this matter of education where our fathers left it, where the history of our country left it, to the schools systems of the different towns, cities and states,” they succeeded in choking off funding for a stand-alone Cabinet department devoted to education.

That doesn’t ring a bell? Perhaps that’s because the year was 1868, the department was only a year old, and it had only four employees. Kevin Kosar tells the story of the rise and fall of the first Education Department in a 2015 Politico article. After the Civil War, education advocates pushed for professionalizing school systems. They saw a role for the federal government not in running schools but merely gathering statistics on the state of education in the country and promoting efforts to improve schools.

Congress approved the creation of the department in 1867, but lawmakers quickly had second thoughts. In the midst of Reconstruction, southern members of Congress balked at the idea of the federal government tracking whether their states were following through on a requirement to set up schools for both white and Black students. After just a year in existence, the Education Department was demoted to an Office of Education within the Interior Department.

That marked the beginning of a bureaucratic odyssey for the agency that included a stint at the Federal Security Agency starting in 1939. Later, it became part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. That arrangement held until the creation of the latter-day Education Department in 1980. 

The modern department has had a target on its back since it was created. In his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan pledged to eliminate it. The idea never gained momentum, especially after his administration issued a report called A Nation at Risk, detailing the shortcomings of the country’s school systems. Over the ensuing decades, Education took on new responsibilities for setting standards, issuing grants and supervising the federal student loan program.

Nevertheless, getting rid of the second incarnation of the Education Department became a mainstay of the conservative agenda, which it remains to this day. Here’s a short list of promises to kill off the department:

  • In 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had voted in favor of creating the department as a backbencher, said he had changed his mind about it. “I do not believe we need a federal department of homework checkers,” he said.
  • Between 2011 and 2018, seven different bills to ax Education were introduced in Congress.
  • Education was one of the agencies that Rick Perry could remember that he wanted to eliminate during a 2016 presidential debate. 
  • In 2018, the Trump administration proposed merging Education with the Labor Department to create a single agency focused on workforce and training issues.
  • In February 2021, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., introduced a one-sentence bill: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2022.”
  • In the summer of 2022, former Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the agency she had led “should not exist.”
  • In September, Trump said "inappropriate racial, sexual and political material" was being taught in American schools, and added: "If federal bureaucrats are going to push this radicalism, we should abolish the Department of Education."

Still, the department persists.