Ed Mystery: Why Don’t More Democrats Like It?

I understand why more Democrats don’t like the Ed Department right now, governed as it is by Michigan’s Evil Queen Betsy. But I’m surprised to find out that the Ed Department has garnered only minority support during the last ten years. There’s one obvious explanation, but are there more reasons?Pew fed agencies EPA or ED

Here’s what we know: New results from Pew show us that the Ed Department is one of the federal government’s least favorite agencies, with 48% of respondents feeling favorable and 48% unfavorable.

No surprise there. Ever since Jimmy Carter instigated the department it has been the target of conservative fury. Reagan’s first appointed secretary, Terrel Bell, was given the unusual mission to dismantle the department which he headed.

More recently, conservatives such as Texas’s Rick Perry have remembered that they wanted to eliminate the Ed Department, even if he couldn’t remember the other department he wanted to get rid of.

So there’s no surprise for the department’s low favorability among GOP respondents. But why do so many Democrats dislike it? Was something happening in 2010 that led a majority of Democratic respondents to say they didn’t like the Ed Dept?

Here’s my hunch: Back in 2010, teachers and schools were still trying to cope with the strictures of the No Child Left Behind act and the unmanageable requirements NCLB mandated for high-stakes testing. By 2015, those testing requirements were tamped down. Among Democrats, at least, the popularity of the Ed Department went up (in fits and spurts) until the ascension of Queen Betsy.

Is there another explanation I’m missing?

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The Real Reason Trump Hates the Education Department

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.

Don't trust anyone under 37...

Don’t trust anyone under 37…

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.

Could It Work?

Conservatives love to threaten it. But could they pull it off? Business Insider looked recently at the nuts and bolts of what it would take for a conservative president to make good on his threat to eliminate the Education Department.

Rand Paul is the most recent candidate to threaten. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, my historical look at this question ran recently in the pages of Time Magazine. Conservative candidates since Reagan have pledged to eliminate Education. No president ever has.

What’s their beef? As Rand Paul explained in this 2010 speech, many conservatives assume that federal control increases the left’s culture-war power in schools.

The assumption—for electoral purposes at least—is that federal power means less local ability to say no. As Paul put it in 2010,

I would rather the local schools decide things. I don’t like the idea of somebody in Washington deciding that Susie has two mommies is an appropriate family situation and should be taught to my kindergartner at school. That’s what happens when we let things get to a federal level.

Business Insider asked law guru Laurence Tribe to explain the president’s power to make good on this threat. Obviously, Tribe explained, no president can simply eliminate a federal government department by fiat. But there are things presidents can do. They can encourage legislators to push legislation to that effect. And they can strangle government agencies by cutting funding.

In a 2012 budget proposal, Senator Paul suggested an 83% cut to the Education Department. Only the popular Pell Grant program would remain. Indeed, in that proposal to save $500 billion, Education took the biggest hit at $78 billion. The National Science Foundation would face big cuts, too, along with huge cuts (78%) to the Interior Department and the utter elimination of the Departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Development.

Paul’s bluster raises a new question, one I didn’t consider in my historical commentary. If so many conservatives threaten the Education Department, why don’t any of them actually get rid of it? As Catherine Lugg described in her history of Reagan’s early efforts, it is easier to malign the Education Department than it is to eliminate it.

Part of the reason might be seen in Senator Paul’s 2012 budget proposal. The Education Department hosts several extremely popular programs, including the Pell Grant program. Even conservatives like to win elections, and it is difficult to win when you take money away from voters. This is why we still have Social Security and Medicaid, in spite of conservative ideological disgust.

In any case, be ready for more. As the 2016 GOP contest gets rolling, the Education Department will be threatened, insulted, and demonized. The one thing it won’t be, it seems, is actually eliminated.

Broun and the Budget

US Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) garnered a lot of attention last year, including a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education by yours truly, for his claim that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were lies from the pit of hell.

Today Broun took to the pages of the New York Times to call for more drastic budget cuts.  Broun calls Representative Paul Ryan’s budget cuts too mild.  Instead, Broun insists, we need to cut the federal government drastically, including eliminating the Departments of Education and Energy.

Broun writes,

Constitutionally speaking, the federal government should not have a role in K-12 public education anyway. Overpaid Washington bureaucrats shouldn’t be deciding how to provide for teachers and students, whose own state and local governments are better equipped to understand their needs. A Heritage Foundation study showed that in 2010, the average salary of an Education Department employee reached $103,000 — nearly double the average public-school teacher’s salary. Let’s phase out a large portion of the department’s roughly $70 billion budget. We can transfer the remaining dollars directly to the states, where they will be used more wisely.

Broun’s missive demonstrates the tight connections between various strains of conservative educational ideology.  Does Broun want less evolution taught in public schools?  Yes.  Does he also want a smaller, leaner, more local government?  Yes.

In Broun’s conservative thinking, these are not utterly separate ideas, but facets of the same good ideas.  If education decisions were made closer to home, Broun argues, they would be made “more wisely.”  Local governments, Broun writes, are “better equipped to understand [teachers’ and students’] needs.”  In short, not only would an elimination the Education Department make good fiscal sense, Broun insists, but it would allow schools to respect the religious views of local creationist parents.