On February 7, 2017, while much of the country was focused on the final roll call vote for our newly confirmed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, Rep. Thomas Massie (elected from Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District) introduced H.R. 899 in the House of Representatives. Short, sweet, and to the point, the bill reads as follows:
H. R. 899
To terminate the Department of Education.
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
February 7, 2017
Mr. Massie (for himself, Mr. Amash, Mr. Biggs, Mr. Chaffetz, Mr. Gaetz,
Mr. Jody B. Hice of Georgia, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Labrador) introduced
the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on Education
and the Workforce
To terminate the Department of Education.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the
United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. TERMINATION OF THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION.
The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.
H.R. 899 moved quickly into committee, where it currently sits. There’s no guarantee that it’ll make it to the full floor of the House for a vote, or, beyond that, if it will make it through the Senate (in identical form) to land on the desk of the President.
However, the political climate on the hill has, in many ways, never been friendlier to bills like H.R. 899 than it currently is. After eight years as the “voice of the opposition,” Republicans find themselves in a powerful position. They have control of both houses of Congress, the White House, and will, likelier than not, be able to place at least one justice on the highest court in the land (maintaining the former 5-4 conservative balance, if not shifting towards 6-3 or even beyond).
By confirming Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Republicans have put in place an avowed school choice advocate, who has had a truly adverse effect on the state of public education in her home state of Michigan (for more on DeVos, see Joe Heath’s piece, What are we even doing here?). DeVos is a Secretary of Education in the mold of Terrel Bell, Ronald Reagan’s first appointee to this position. As noted in Rep. Massie’s press release on H.R. 899, Regan made the following remarks about the Department of Education during his Address to the Nation on the Program for Economic Recovery:
As a third step, we propose to dismantle two Cabinet Departments, Energy and Education. Both Secretaries are wholly in accord with this.… Education is the principal responsibility of local school systems, teachers, parents, citizen boards, and State governments. By eliminating the Department of Education less than 2 years after it was created, we cannot only reduce the budget but ensure that local needs and preferences, rather than the wishes of Washington, determine the education of our children.
Clearly, the idea of dismantling the Department of Education is nothing new for the Republican Party, but what are the potential roads forward for education at the state level? One possible blueprint comes from the Education Committee of the Council for National Policy (CNP). The CNP has been described by the New York Times as “a little-known club… of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” On their homepage, their central tenets are defined as limited government, traditional values, and a strong national defense.
Recently, CNP’s Education Committee has developed an Education Reform Report, “intended to serve as a resource for education reforms by the new administration of the Department of Education under the leadership of Mrs. Becky [sic] DeVos, Secretary-Designate.” The goal of the report is outlined in its second paragraph, “the restoration of education in America, in accordance with historic Judeo-Christian principles which formed the basis of instruction in America’s schools for its first 300 hundred years.” The report can be found here.
The plan is outlined in two major phases – a reform at the federal level and then state and local efforts. The primary federal push is to dismantle the Department of Education and to “[a]rgue that a Federal D.O.E. is unconstitutional, illegal and contrary to America’s education practice for 300 years from early 17th century to Colonial times” (thus making the return to federal oversight of education impossible, barring a constitutional amendment or court ruling).
At the state level, the plan hopes to support the development of state departments of education, which will be “emboldened for change… when the Trump administration in fully in place.” The changes recommended by the CNP align clearly with the organization’s central principle of promoting traditional Judeo-Christian values (through posting of the Ten Commandments, the addition of “select Bible classes,” a recognition of “traditional holidays… as celebrations of our Judeo-Christian heritage,” encouraging the instruction of “history from the Judeo-Christian perspective,” and a push to remove “secular-based sex education materials from school”).
While this plan is only one possible way forward, it is easy enough to envision the Trump administration pursuing something similar, given the strong influence of the Christian right on his policies and governance thus far. The loyalty of white evangelicals (roughly 80% of whom voted for Trump), the vice-presidency of Mike Pence (a man who regularly describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”), and the choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education (a woman who has claimed a primary goal of “confront[ing] the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom”) should give pause to anyone who does not subscribe wholesale to these “traditional values.”
Rep. Massie and his co-sponsors also built something of a failsafe into H.R. 899. By setting an effective termination date of December 31, 2018, they are doing their damnedest to make sure that the Department of Education will be abolished, regardless of whether they keep the House and/or Senate in the 2018 midterms.
We can argue about the impact of increased polarization on the hill and the fact that Congressional Democrats acted similarly when they last held both houses of Congress and the White House. However, this proposed “plan” to remove a department with important oversight and, for the 2016 fiscal year, a budget over $73 billion (including $15B+ in Title I grants for low-income students in elementary and secondary schools and $30B+ in grants & work-study programs for low-income postsecondary students) with no true replacement should alarm all of us.