It wasn’t hard to predict. As I argued a few months back in the pages of Time Magazine, this round of GOP primaries would be full of threats to the Education Department. In a recent interview, front-runner Donald Trump made the usual accusations. But I wonder if there is another, more obvious reason why conservatives like to take potshots at the Ed Dept.
In his recent interview with Chris Wallace, Trump made the usual conservative noises: The Ed Department is trying to replace local control of schools with control by “Washington bureaucrats.” Trump blasted competitor Jeb Bush as supporting the sinister Common Core. Trump’s solution? Get rid of the Education Department entirely. It is home to egregious “waste, fraud, and abuse.” [You can find Trump’s education comments starting just before the five-minute mark in the video clip.]
Since its birth, the Education Department has been the target of conservative ire. President Reagan wanted it gone. In the run-up to 2012, the Ed Dept was one of the targets Rick Perry could remember.
As I’ve argued in my recent book, things weren’t always this way. Attacking federal influence in education only became the default “conservative” position in the late 1930s or early 1940s. At that time, conservatives horrified by New Deal growth lambasted any exertion of federal influence. Before then, however, influential conservatives eagerly embraced the possibilities of federal control over education. Such control, conservative leaders in the 1920s insisted, could force new immigrants to become Anglicized and “Americanized” at a faster clip. Such control, conservatives hoped, could cram traditional values down the throats of leftist teachers nationwide.
Only after the New Deal equated federal power with progressive politics–in the minds of many conservative activists, at least–did “Big Education” come to be equated with “Left-wing Influence.”
I wonder, though, if there’s a simpler psychological reason why today’s conservatives hate the Ed Dept. The department is a novelty. As education nerds are well aware, the Ed Dept recently celebrated its thirty-sixth birthday. 36! It was created only in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter.
So here’s my hunch: Conservatives have many reasons to promise to cut the Education Department. In The Donald’s case, he can use the Common Core to attack rival Jeb Bush. He can appeal to voters’ sense of distrust of “Washington bureaucrats.” He can make it look as if he has concrete plans to slim government and eliminate waste.
But he also can imagine a time without such a department. Indeed, neither he nor anyone else of a certain age needs to imagine it at all. The Education Department is so brand-spankin new that conservatives have no trouble concluding that we will get by just fine without it.