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Ted Cruz wants to close the Education Department. Here's what could actually happen.

Goodbye, Education Department!
Goodbye, Education Department!
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

During the Republican presidential primary debate Tuesday night, Sen. Ted Cruz became the second national politician from Texas to disdain the Education Department so much he couldn't even remember its name.

"I would eliminate, the IRS, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy... [pause] ...the Department of Commerce, and HUD," he said on the primary stage. Later, his campaign clarified that he meant to include the Education Department on that list.

Shutting down the department would be a big deal, entailing figuring out what to do with billions of dollars in federal grants and other initiatives. And how it would work in practice could range from a truly drastic change to a mostly cosmetic one.

Who wants to get rid of the Education Department

The Education Department has been on Republican hit lists since it was created in 1979. President Ronald Reagan campaigned on getting rid of it in 1980 and tried to kill it off while he was in office, but didn't succeed. Instead, in 1983 a landmark federal report called "A Nation At Risk" argued mediocre education was endangering the United States. That report made improving education a national priority, and the argument that there should be no federal role receded for more than a decade.

But by 1996, Bob Dole was again arguing in favor of eliminating the Education Department during his presidential campaign. George W. Bush, who expanded the federal role in education, had to fight to get eliminating the department out of the Republican Party platform in 2000. In the 2012 primaries, many candidates — most notably Rick Perry — argued that the department should be abolished.

So far this year, Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul have called for eliminating the department outright. Sen. Marco Rubio suggested to donors in February that he would do the same, although it's hard to see how that jibes with his calls for higher education reform.

What the Education Department does

Arne Duncan

Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2010. (Ryan Kelly/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

The Education Department is basically a giant grant-making agency. About 95 percent of the department's $67.3 billion budget is devoted to grant-making, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The department gives out K-12 grants to states for educating low-income children and children with disabilities and for training teachers. It makes K-12 grants to school districts for children who live on military bases and other federal land. Those federal funds make up about 12 percent of all education spending.

In higher education, the department doesn't give out massive grants but rather individual vouchers to students with financial need.

The Education Department also makes all new federal student loans and, through contracts with private companies, ensures those loans are serviced and paid back.

States, districts, schools, and colleges that get federal money have to follow federal regulations. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, in the news most often lately for investigating how colleges handle sexual harassment and assault, is responsible for ensuring that programs that receive federal funds don't discriminate based on gender or race.

How getting rid of the Education Department might work

Closed sign

It's not this simple. (Shutterstock)

Getting rid of the Education Department means different things. There are several options, ranging from extraordinary drastic to mostly cosmetic.

The "throw it all out" option: Not just abolishing the Education Department as a Cabinet agency, but getting the federal government out of education entirely. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, wants to get rid of the Education Department and all of its programs, including federal aid for college. Paul introduced a bill in 2011 that approached this option. It would have cut the department's budget 83 percent and eliminated everything except for the Pell Grant program for college students.

The block grant option: In 2011, Rick Perry proposed turning federal aid for K-12 into a block grant for states, essentially letting states have the federal money without any strings attached. That would eliminate the Education Department's oversight and control while maintaining at least some of the federal funding. Cruz's website suggests that he envisions the same thing.

The "foundation" option: Reagan's first education secretary, who was meant to preside over the department's dismantling, proposed turning it into a grant-making agency like the National Science Foundation, according to Education Week's 2010 history of attempts to get rid of the Education Department. It's not clear what exactly that would have looked like — Congress didn't support the proposal, and Reagan himself eventually gave up on it.

The mostly cosmetic option: It's theoretically possible to eliminate the Education Department without getting rid of those programs — the programs would just be put under the responsibility of another agency. Grants for educating low-income children, children with disabilities, and college students all predate the creation of the Cabinet-level Education Department in 1979; they were administered by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In the 1990s, when Republicans in Congress held hearings on getting rid of the Education Department, one proposal was to combine it with the Department of Labor.

In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office looked at shuttering Cabinet-level agencies as one option for reducing the deficit. CBO suggested that the Internal Revenue Service might take over responsibility for student loans and grants for higher education, since it already has much of the data families use to apply for financial aid. But it also cautioned that getting rid of an agency might be more costly in the short term because of the logistical difficulties involved, and that the private sector and state and local governments probably couldn't fill the gap.

Why it's not likely to happen


If Reagan couldn't do it… (Shutterstock)

Reagan couldn't get rid of the Education Department as president, when the department itself was in its infancy; Newt Gingrich couldn't get rid of it as speaker of the House in a Republican-controlled Congress. The prospects for a President Cruz or President Paul getting the job done 40 years later are highly unlikely.

Getting rid of any Cabinet-level agency, even if the functions are simply transferred to another department, is a long shot. Only five Cabinet-level departments have ever been eliminated, and four of those were combined into the Department of Defense in 1949. (The fifth is the Department of the Post Office, an independent executive agency since 1971.)

Getting rid of federal grants entirely is even more unlikely. It would be disruptive and almost certainly unpopular. The federal government provides only about 12 percent of K-12 education funding nationally, with the rest provided by states and school districts. And only about half of that money is from the Education Department; the rest comes from the Department of Agriculture for school nutrition programs, the Department of Health and Human Services for Head Start, and other agencies.

But because federal money is doled out unevenly, some states would feel the cuts more than others. Getting rid of federal education funding would cut 17 percent of all school funding in Louisiana and South Dakota and 18 percent in Mississippi. Even Connecticut and New Jersey, the two states least dependent on the federal government, would see a 5 percent cut in school revenue. States would have to lay off teachers, shorten the school year, and undertake other budget-cutting measures — or they'd have to raise taxes. Neither is likely to be a winning project politically.

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