Why We Have a Federal Department of Education

Author: 420 Times
Created: 09 February, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read

Following her historic confirmation as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos may find herself unemployed. A bill (H.R. 899) has already been proffered to eliminate the Department of Education. The bill, introduced by Representative Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky), and co-sponsored by seven other Republican members of the House, is terse by any standard invoking just one sentence: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

Satirically speaking, given the level of opposition to Secretary DeVos’ appointment, one might expect there to be considerable bipartisan support for abolishing the Department.

The Department of Education (ED) is relatively new. It was created by President Carter on October 17, 1979, and did not officially begin to operate until May 16, 1980. Objectively, the United States had somehow found a way to educate its masses for over 190 years without the existence of a Cabinet-level Department.

ED came to fruition as the result of President Carter’s decentralization of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which had been established by President Eisenhower in 1953. It became, and remains the smallest department within our Federal Government and has been mired in controversy since its inception.

ED almost immediately came under attack. President Reagan originally campaigned upon a promise to eliminate it as a Cabinet post, and he tried to dismantle it (via budget) in 1982. His efforts were blocked by the Democratic House.

The Republican assault on the Department continued, led in the 1990s by then-Speaker Gingrich, as well as Senator Bob Dole during his presidential run. However, it was President George W. Bush that expanded the Department to support his education platform, and No Child Left Behind.

What began as a 3,000-employee department in 1979 with a $12 billion budget, grew exponentially under President Bush and has continued to grow to its present level of approximately 5,000 employees and a $73 billion budget.

The real questions are: (1) Is the Department of Education constitutional; and (2) assuming that it is constitutional, is it fulfilling its mission?

Opponents have long argued that the Department of Education is unconstitutional. Their premise is that the Constitution is silent as to education, and therefore, the Federal Government lacks authority in that area. For those who still honor the Tenth and Ninth Amendments, this suggests that education should reside singularly within the purview of State and local governments.

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Supporters have argued that the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3), in conjunction with the Tax and Spending Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 1) provide an adequate basis for federal intervention. While neither is directly on point, it should be noted that the very existence of a Cabinet is only tangentially addressed in the Constitution. The President’s latitude to create a Cabinet is only implied under Article 2, Section 2, [The President] may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices…,” and alluded to in Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which twice references “…a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments…

If one embraces the argument that the Department of Education is unconstitutional, that is dispositive of the issue. In the alternative, if one accepts the constitutionality of ED’s existence, the question remains as to whether it is serving its intended purpose.

The Department of Education’s stated mission is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Since the Department’s formation, the United States academic proficiencies have declined (as measured by international standards). Additionally, one could argue that ED has begun to indirectly and perhaps inappropriately expand its influence into curricula through programs like Common Core.

The issue of whether to continue to maintain a Department of Education would appear to be a legitimate one. It predominantly functions as an enormous grant organization with about 95 percent of its budget funding educational grants. It is fair to debate whether it should require nearly $3.65 billion of organizational infrastructure to deliver those grants.

That is why we have the right to vote and have our voices heard by our Congressional representatives. IVN encourages you to form an opinion and let your Representative know how you feel.


A previous Department of Education was created in 1867, but within a year, it was reduced to agency, and later bureau status until 1953.

The Department of Health and Human Services became the residual spinoff of the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

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A Civil Assessment has been designed to serve as an Op-Ed forum for you. You are invited to offer your opinion and discuss your position in the Comment Section. Please be sure that your “assessments” remain “civil” so that they may earn the respect of others.

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