Politics & Policy

Elimination Lost

What happened to abolishing the Department of Education?

Massive political realignments are often underreported because political insiders have no incentive to discuss them. When one political party co-opts a policy supported by the other, the outmaneuvered party can’t acknowledge that its opponents are doing what it has pledged to do for years. The ascendant party gags disappointed loyalists by promising that any political capital gained will be spent on their causes. But that promise is rarely kept.

Witness the realignment dynamic in George W. Bush’s education policy.

As recently as 1996, the Republican party sought to abolish the Department of Education as an inappropriate intrusion into state, local and family affairs. The GOP platform that year was clear: “The Federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the market place. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education.”

While the Republican congresses of the mid-1990s are most famous for their efforts to eliminate the department, their goal was not a new one. Conservatives had talked about eliminating the department since its creation by President Carter. President Reagan made a campaign pledge to eliminate it, and renewed his promise in his first State of the Union address in January 1982: “The budget plan I submit to you on Feb. 8 will realize major savings by dismantling the Department of Education.”

Unfortunately, President Reagan was unable to achieve his goal because of solid opposition by the Democratic House. President Bush has done far worse, and with far less excuse. In his State of the Union address last month, the president touted huge federal education-spending increases–the largest under any president since Lyndon B. Johnson–as an accomplishment of his presidency.

Not that education spending has been out of line with other current White House policies. President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have increased total federal spending by at least $533 billion in just three years. This fiscally irresponsible pattern is set by the White House, which often requests spending increases but seldom proposes offsetting cuts. Today, Republicans do not talk about eliminating individual programs, much less entire agencies.

The Department of Education itself has grown by 69.6 percent between 2002 and 2004: from $46,282 million in FY2002 to $60,600 million in FY2004. This is a remarkable increase from a party so recently committed to devolving control over education–and the silence of loyalists on this issue is still more remarkable.

The No Child Left Behind Act has made federal education-spending increases a domestic priority. Conservatives claim that runaway spending is the political price of an important reform effort. But we have seen billions spent and little reform to show for it.

The centerpiece of the act, the part for which all the money was supposedly paid, are the provisions that demand alternative educational opportunities for children trapped in failing schools. If the Act had indeed secured their escape, it might have been a fair ransom.

But the private-school-choice provisions of the act, which would have provided families with real power, were a casualty of political compromise. And the so-called “public-school choice” components have been eviscerated or ignored with impunity by state bureaucracies. In Chicago last year, for example, about 3,000 transfer slots were offered to the 125,000 children trapped in Chicago’s failing schools. Moreover, the transfers were to schools only marginally better than the failing ones.

Shoved further to the left by the president’s remarkable spendthriftiness on the department, Democrats now complain that the increases should be larger. Though unprecedented in scope, the budget remains smaller than promised, opponents claim, in a deal that should make Senator Edward Kennedy proud.

Thus, the education debate this election year is not whether the federal government should be micromanaging K-12 at unprecedented expense and with dubious results, but whether or not doubling the federal role in less than a decade is good enough. This is a coup for Democrats on par with Republicans’ welfare reform victory of 1996.

Just as British Prime Minister Tony Blair achieved Labor hegemony through policies virtually indistinguishable from those of his opponents, the Bush administration now seeks to solidify Republican control by promoting policies–unconstitutional, to boot–that should make their loyalists blush.

Small government conservatives should carefully separate the political victories of this administration from its actual victories. In federal education policy, they have suffered a defeat.

Veronique De Rugy is a fiscal-policy analyst and Marie Gryphon is an education-policy analyst with the Cato Institute.

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