Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has called for the abolition of the Department of Education (ED) more than once.
Among his remarks were those made at an October 18, 2015 appearance on Fox News, when he suggested he would either dismantle ED or slash its funding. "I'm not cutting services," he said, "but I may cut the Department of Education." At his January 11 campaign stop in Manchester, N.H. earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that he stopped short of a wholesale ED shutdown but reiterated his desire to slash its funding. Then in his post-Super Tuesday press conference, he stated his intention to close ED down.
It's not clear whether the question is addressed in a Trump position paper. The Trump campaign's website identifies six key issues; higher ed policy is not among them. He has published a video about his position on education, but it focuses entirely on Common Core, the nationwide standards put forward by ED; he opposes it, as do many other Republicans. Concerning a possible ED shutdown, ED spokesperson Alberto Betancourt said, "No one will be available for comment." A Trump campaign spokesperson did not return requests for comment.
The idea of closing sections of the federal government isn’t new. Former presidential candidate and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, along with his father Ron, have made abolishing the Federal Reserve System part of both their presidential campaigns. Ted Cruz has called for the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service.
ED didn't become a cabinet level agency until the last year of Jimmy Carter's presidency. When Ronald Reagan entered the White House the following year, he vowed to shut ED down, only to backtrack in 1985, citing a lack of support from the then-Democrat-controlled Congress.
Even if everything Trump says flies in the face of conventional wisdom, statements about an ED shutdown can't be dismissed out of hand. But in the event that is was closed, federal funding to higher ed would not end -- nor would federal support for education across the board.
"The U.S. Department of Education is a cabinet-level federal agency, established by federal law," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of Cappex.com, a website that connects students with colleges and financial aid. In a shutdown scenario, he said, "Federal funds for education would be made available through block grants" that would go to states. States would then decide how the money is spent.
But the buck would stop on Capitol Hill.
"To eliminate the Department and replace it with block grants to the states would require an act of Congress," said Kantrowitz. While Reagan called for eliminating the Department, once in office, however, he only cut the Department's budget, said Kantrowitz.
One reason that Trump has called for its abolition is to eliminate ED's budget to save money. Trump claims he wants to fill a $500-billion-plus hole in the federal budget and part of his plan to get there would be to cut the $67 billion budget of ED.
"Eliminating the U.S. Department of Education would not have a big impact on the federal budget," Kantrowitz said. "It is one of the smallest federal agencies, with only 4,000 to 5,000 employees."
The alternative, block grants, aid from the federal government that has to be used for specific purposes, were championed by Reagan as a way to reduce waste in social service programs and may be embraced by Trump as part of a small-government strategy. Reagan's critics said that block grants were budget cuts disguised as efficiency solutions.
In the past, with other federal programs, block grants have, in effect, acted as budget cuts. In 1996, Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), a part of the 1935 Social Security Act, was replaced by the more restrictive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, leading President Clinton to announce "the end of welfare as we know it" during his second term. In practice, funding to social services was drastically cut.
The approximate higher ed analogs to AFDC are the Pell Grant program, consisting of money that doesn't have to be repaid, and the Perkins loan; both benefit low income students. How they would fare during a Trump administration remains to be seen.