Though Texas Gov. Rick Perry drew a blank during last week's debate when trying to list the federal agencies he'd shut down as president, he didn't forget to ax the Department of Education. During a speech Tuesday in Bettendorf, Iowa, where he laid out his "uproot and overhaul" plan, Perry restated that commitment.
"We'll eliminate agencies that perform redundant functions," the Republican candidate said. "Get rid of the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy."
In addition to his speech, Perry released a fact sheet, asserting that the Education Department's ballooning budget has shown few returns and that he would turn all federal education funding into no-strings-attached block grants -- a system that basically hands states federal dollars in exchange for nothing.
The fact sheet says:
By block-granting all funding for elementary and secondary education to the states, and removing federal government control, we will empower states to individualize their education systems, adapting them to meet each state's unique population and challenges. Instead of a "one-size-fits-all" approach to education, we will return authority over our education system to those individuals with a personal investment in their society, and the education of their own children.
But dismantling any government agency, let alone the Education Department, is far more complicated than Perry makes it sound. It would require a vote in Congress that even Ronald Reagan could not drum up. Practically speaking, turning federal education funding into block grants would demand the overturning of court decisions that require nondiscriminatory protections for disadvantaged groups. Most importantly, the idea of leaving states entirely to their own devices makes both liberal and conservative education experts worry that poor, special education and minority students would be underserved by public schools even more than they already are.
Chester Finn, who served as counselor to the secretary of education in the Reagan administration, sympathizes with the concern about "heavy-handed regulation on how federal money is spent." But he warned that backing off all federal oversight "would amount to wasting the federal dollars in this field."
The desire to free the states from Education Department oversight is not exclusive to Perry. It's a view he shares with fellow candidates Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul. Other GOP presidential hopefuls, such as Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, haven't gone as far, although they have similarly stated their intent to reduce the federal role in education.
The U.S. Department of Education was established in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter at the behest of the National Education Association. The nation's largest teachers union wanted a Cabinet-level advocate for increased education spending. At the time, federal education duties were handled by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
"The key vote was in a House committee where the proposal won by one vote," recalled Jack Jennings, a long-time Hill education staffer who now leads the Center on Education Policy. He added that the existence of a dedicated federal agency raised the profile of education in the national arena: "We wouldn't be having debates about education unless we had a department."
Not long after the department was created, President Reagan tried to get rid of it, but didn't have the political muscle after pushing through tax reforms.
"Reagan tried to shut it down, so I say good luck to Perry," joked Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. "Reagan was always popular, but it didn't even work for him."
Fast forward to 2011: Stakeholders on both sides of the aisle are trying to reduce the federal government's role in education, driven by controversy over the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which tied federal funding to rising student performance targets. But most feasible proposals -- including that of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate's education committee and recently produced an updated bill -- would simply replace the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind, keeping federal protections and special funding streams for disadvantaged and poorer students in place.
Yet even some Republicans think Harkin's bipartisan plan goes too far in reducing the federal role. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce signed off on a letter saying as much.
"Business-minded Republicans realize that we're far behind China and other countries in student performance," Jennings said. "Others are buying into the belief that federal government is evil no matter what."
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told HuffPost in a September interview that he sees his and the federal government's role in education as being a catalyst for change. "My role is to shine a spotlight on folks that are doing things that take real courage," Duncan said. "My role is to challenge folks when I don't see that happening."
Life Without A Department
So what would the country look like if the Department of Education shut its doors?
According to Diane Ravitch, the New York University historian who formerly served as assistant secretary of education, school districts would not see much change if that's all that happened. Indeed, many federal education entities, such as the National Council for Education Statistics, were launched before the department. "Title I, bilingual education, special education funding, higher education funding, research and statistics, etc., all predated its creation," Ravitch said.
But Perry's plan goes beyond the symbolic act of dismantling the agency. "He's not saying he's going to take a sign off of that building and be done with it," noted Jennings. "He's saying, 'Send the money to the states without any strings on them,'" Jennings added.
Perry's campaign representatives could not be reached for comment, and his unofficial education adviser, Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott, was unavailable for comment.
Turning federal programs into block grants, Jennings said, would leave fundamental policy questions entirely up to state and local educators without any oversight. "How can you count on 14,000 school districts to improve without any extra aid?" he asked.
When federal money comes without strings, school systems might spend it on other, less expensive goals. "Children with disabilities, poor students, students who don't speak English would all have less attention paid to them," Jennings said.
Similar concerns plague Dianne Piche, who heads the education policy arm of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and previously administered the Education Department's civil rights office. "It means there would be no rules attached to these programs," she said. States would have fewer incentives to distribute federal dollars in ways that benefit poor and minority students.
"What do you do about compliance [with federal education laws]? What do you do about evaluation?" Schneider asked. "When states have responsibility, they often veer off on their own paths, like with their definition of proficiency. Even if you reduce the federal footprint in education, there are still certain core functions that require a fairly large agency."
But education advocates are soothed by the fact that the idea of eliminating the Education Department has gained little political traction.
"I don't see it happening any time soon," Piche said. "It is a very unrealistic proposal. They'd have to repeal laws, including Title VI nondiscrimination [protections]."
"There's no way you'd get 218 votes in the House, 60 in the Senate, to do away with most of the protections around special ed," said Rick Hess, an education scholar based at the American Enterprise Institute. "Even conservative members of Congress have shown little interest in allowing Title I dollars to be spent without regard to the children's poverty status."
The question of eliminating the federal hand in education even touches on the ongoing effects of the seminal Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education.
"It's a serious step backwards," Jennings said. "It's narrow-minded thinking."