Should we shutter the Department of Education?

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Since its inception 40 years ago as a political payoff from President Jimmy Carter to the National Education Association, the Department of Education has engaged in scores of dubious actions that have made millions of Americans yearn for its expulsion.

The most recent example of comes from a long string of audits showing the federal department is doing a lousy job keeping tabs on the $38 billion it receives to administer federally funded K–12 programs. “Complex and persistent” is how Congress’ spending watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, described the agency’s mismanagement of data, oversight, and evaluation.

It’s not surprising a colossal central bureaucracy cannot efficiently run 100,000 schools attended by 50 million children in 50 gloriously variegated states. The U.S. is a richly diverse country, and its families have widely different educational interests and needs.

The founders of our constitutional republic anticipated the pitfalls posed by big, intrusive government. They did not include education among the powers granted to the federal government. In fact, under the Bill of Rights (the often-overlooked 10th Amendment), they left authority over matters such as education expressly with the states and the people — where it rightfully belongs.

So, what is the expiration date for a federal education behemoth that shouldn’t exist in the first place?

Unfortunately, very few laws contain sunset provisions and “regulations almost never do,” Institute for Policy Innovation President Tom Giovanetti noted a few years ago. In other words, “we are piling up taxes, laws, and regulations that are outdated, ineffective, redundant, sometimes contradictory, and otherwise simply past their prime.” In 2015, Giovanetti proposed that every new law or regulation should contain a sunset clause after five years and after 10 years for any and all new agencies. If that commonsense guideline were actually in place, the Education Department would have probably been on the chopping block 30 years ago.

Partly by design and partly by accident, Idaho could be on the verge of providing a national test case for the sunset strategy. The Gem State stipulates that agency regulations will expire unless the legislature votes to reauthorize them. This year’s session ended in feuding, with House and Senate voting down each other’s bills. One of the casualties, the Associated Press reported, “was a bill approving 8,200 pages containing 736 chapters of rules and regulations that touch on just about every aspect of daily life in Idaho.”

The upshot of that fortuitous gridlock is that Republican Gov. Brad Little — a critic of excessive governmental regulations who in January ordered agencies to kill two regulations for every one they birthed — must decide by July 1 which regulations are important enough to be reinstated. News accounts suggest Little and his budget chief, Alex Adams, are downplaying the likelihood of sweeping policy changes.

Of course, some rules, such as those licensing hunting and fishing, are fairly innocuous. However, Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, says Little could do more than simply tap the brakes on the administrative state: “He has a chance to discontinue a plethora of bad public policies.” For instance, he could pull out the failed Common Core education standards by their regulatory roots.

Regardless of what happens in Idaho, there is a lesson here for other states and the federal government in the value of having termination dates — not just for regulations, but for entire agencies too.

Meanwhile, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., offered a sunset bill for the Department of Education, abolishing it at the end of 2020. A dissolution deadline would likely prompt a thorough examination of everything the department does and fails to do. Even better, it could devolve obsolete one-size-fits-all education federal programs, return taxing power to the states and localities, or transfer certain activities to other federal agencies.

Obviously, the Massie bill will not see the light of day in the current Democrat-led House of Representatives, where socialist schemes are the cause du jour. But if a sunset clause is never implemented, will inept and costly bureaucracies such as the Department of Education ever be dissolved?

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with the Heartland Institute.



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