Representative Thomas Massie and the Department of Education

Representative Thomas Massie: Things you should really know about the Department of Education before you try to abolish it with a single sentence bill.

1) The Department of Education does useful things that most people probably want to continue.

2) The Department of Education functions existed before 1979; it dates back to 1867. 

3) The Department of Education is not limiting school choice initiatives. 

4) Vouchers don’t really have much to do with the Department of Education currently

5) The Department of Education has incentivized Common Core, but neither Common Core nor any “one-size-fits-all” standards or curriculum have been federally mandated. 

Today, I am starting a Blog, and I’m considering titling each entry, “Things You Should Really Know About __________ Before You __________”. My first installment is for Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky’s 4th District, and it is, “Things you should really know about the Department of Education before you try to abolish it with a single sentence bill.”


1) The Department of Education does useful things that most people probably want to continue. You can get a decent idea of those useful things by checking out the $79 billion budget from 2016. (;

Student College Grants/Loans – about $30 billion – These are a primary support providing millions of Americans the opportunity to obtain a college education. The Department of Education works to regulate these loans and the broader loan industry as well as to manage accreditations to ensure that universities being paid by these loans are providing students a quality education. There are currently needs for reform and support with regard to student loans which the Department of Education is also pursuing. Existing loans and the future need for loans will not disappear if the Department of Education is terminated; so, it might be wise to add a sentence or two making provisions for supporting grants and loans for college students.

Title I K-12 Supports – about $17 billion – The Title I grants under ESEA (enacted during a Democratic administration) support education for disadvantaged students. Roughly $15 billion of this goes directly to local education agencies to enable “local communities to…meet the needs of their students” as you (Massie) champion. You also championed that “schools should be accountable”, and that is where NCLB intersects with this funding. NCLB (enacted during a Republican administration) places constraints on these funds with testing and adequate yearly progress requirements. This is also where Common Core intersects because, although Common Core is not a federal initiative, it has been promoted by the Department of Education with financial incentives including waiving some of the NCLB constraints on these funds for Common Core adopters. The 2016 Title I allocations are not yet posted, but you can see all the local communities receiving funds in 2015 at If you check out your District 4 in Kentucky, I am pretty certain that Boone ($2.3mil), Kenton ($1.7mil), Carter ($1.5mil), Lewis ($1.2mil), Grant ($1.2mil), Scott ($1.2mil), Bath ($0.9mil), Greenup ($0.9mil), Mason ($0.9mil), Fleming ($0.8mil), Campbell ($0.7mil), Carrol ($0.7mil), Boyd ($0.7mil), Harrison ($0.7mil), Oldham ($0.6mil), Elliot ($0.5mil), Owen ($0.5mil), Pendleton ($0.5mil), Nicholas ($0.4mil), Henry ($0.4mil), Gallatin ($0.4mil), Trimble ($0.3mil), and Bracken ($0.3mil) County School Districts probably appreciate having that $20 million or so to support disadvantaged students. But, that is a small percentage of overall school funding that requires significant overhead to receive, and I think the conditional funding here, and in other initiatives, is a large part of your concerns regarding pushing a “one-size-fits all approach by the federal government”. Perhaps a bill that removes such conditions from this funding so is more under local control would better address your concerns. Regardless, terminating the Department of Education does not repeal either ESEA or NCLB; so, you will need to identify where they are managed. For this, something like pre-1979 Office of Education under a broader department (Health and Human Services does a good job with Head Start) rather than a cabinet level education post might be appropriate, but it needs to be managed somewhere.

IDEA Supports – about $16 billion – As of the DeVos hearings, I think almost everyone is now aware of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This provides services for children with disabilities, and it has special funding because providing such services is often both challenging and costly. IDEA (and ADA) along with the Brown v. Board of Education interpretation on the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment are, arguably, the instances where there are federal mandates for education. Together, these largely establish a right to equal educational opportunity through free appropriate public education (FAPE). Again, these funds and oversight need to be managed somewhere, and this would be trickier to repeal with the Fourteenth Amendment. A side note here, that I think a constitutional amendment specifically establishing FAPE as a right would be well placed and might clarify some of the concerns you have about what sits at the federal, state, and local levels. Jesse Jackson has previously championed such an amendment, and I am sure he would welcome your bipartisan support to move something forward.

Improvement/Innovation Grants – about $6 billion – This $6 billion probably gives the best example of federal incentives for specific programs or goals. If you consider limited time additions to this like Race to the Top largely supporting/incentivizing Common Core, I think that argument is stronger. These support things like the Safe Schools initiative, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, charter and magnet school grants, and many other programs. These are all programs where legislation could remove funding with the argument of keeping such initiatives at the state and local level. I suspect many of these programs are popular and that voters who take them for granted now might feel upset when they disappeared. But, you really need to either add the sentences to your bill specifically removing these supporting programs or add the sentences to your bill to provide for their management.

Higher and Continuing Education – about $4 billion – I am combining here $2.5 billion supporting higher education institutions and $1.7 billion supporting adult career and technical education. These programs help our country develop the skills needed to form our 21st Century workforce. Kind of like the improvement/innovation grants, you can probably eliminate them through legislation, but I don’t think doing so would be alarmingly popular. But again, this means more sentences. Either plan for how such supports will be managed (Department of Labor has some parallel initiatives and programs) or make it clear that they are being eliminated.

Another $6 billion Give or Take – I actually have some trouble sorting out the remaining budget categories to get to the overall $79 billion, but there were a couple of standout amounts here. About $1.3 billion supports education of federally connected children (like those of the members of our armed forces) so maybe provision within our enormous defense budget . Another $1 billion goes towards research, but I am pretty confident you could give IES to NSF without too much issue given the degree of collaboration that already exists. There are likely a myriad of other programs under there that need sentences to either eliminate or manage them as well.

I think the bottom line is something that might be a theme for this congressional session, “repeal AND replace”. Most of our federal government oversight, spending, and regulation, is there for a reason. Much of it protects and supports citizens. Repealing or terminating just takes that away in a haphazard, unclear, damaging manner. Replacing or reorganizing is the bigger challenge, and your sentence does not meet that challenge for education.


2) The Department of Education functions existed before 1979; it dates back to 1867. It was actually a Department very briefly then, but it has largely existed as an Office under the Department of Interior, the Federal Security Agency, and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1979, the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services were split, and a number of educationally focused programs from other departments were moved to Education. There are some notable exceptions like Headstart or the National School Lunch Program in other departments. Rearranging again is reasonable with Reagan including in his proposal that you quoted, “Some of the activities…will, of course, be continued either independently or in other areas of government”. If you really want to champion such a realignment, then you have a lot of sentences left to write (see point 1 regarding some of those useful activities that may be worth continuing).


3) The Department of Education is not limiting school choice initiatives. First, let’s clarify what falls under the umbrella of school choice. I am of the opinion that this list from edChoice ( is comprehensive, but I am certainly willing to add other options for consideration. Second, let’s look a bit at both the edChoice and some NCES (that IES funding) statistics. The NCES fast facts indicate approximately 3% of students are home schooled, 10% attend private school, 11% attend a public school of choice, and 76% attend their assigned public school. edChoice states, “more than half of the United States offer families educational choice options”. Given that 24% of students exercise some form of school choice and at least 50% of families have state supported choice access, your desire to have “parents have the right to choose the most appropriate educational opportunity for their children” is clearly not being restricted federally. The Department of Education has, in fact, facilitated aligning federal money to support charter and magnet choices as well has helping support NCLB regulations that provide students in low performing schools choice opportunities. I’d also love to have a discussion on how access to school choice is defined since there are some clear socio-economic factors associated with many of these, but that will need an essay of its own particularly when the impact of inadequate public transportation is factored in.


4) Vouchers don’t really have much to do with the Department of Education currently, but let’s talk about them briefly anyway since you brought them up and they seem to be a pretty singular focus for Republicans supporting school choice currently. A voucher allows per student funding to be dispersed to a private entity providing education to an individual student. This might be a private school, a home schooling parent, a cooperative of some kind, or any other entity providing education. In structuring a voucher, a few important questions need to be answered.

Will there be restrictions as to what entities are eligible to receive the funding? Here, some federal aspects like whether parochial school funding would violate separation of church and state (see Douglas County Schools in Colorado for how this is playing out legally) and whether funding schools that require additional tuition would violate free appropriate public education rights come into play.

What funding amounts are available through vouchers? Public schools are funded through a combination of state (~45% nationally), local (~45% nationally), and federal (~10% nationally) funds. The Department of Education could probably assign vouchers for some of the federal bit to entities that were participating in the initiative the funds are aligned to, but per student funding is largely from the state and local levels; so, each of those levels needs to determine if vouchers are provided and if so what portion of the allocated funds are available by voucher. Nothing in federal law dictates such allocations.

What requirements will be placed on receiving the funding? This is quite challenging because it brings in both the FAPE aspects (including IDEA) and adequate progress accountability. Both what students an entity is required to serve in what ways and what sort of success the entity has to demonstrate are pretty huge questions.

What students are eligible for vouchers? Kentucky doesn’t have any state level choice programs in place with vouchers or otherwise, but a few states do have vouchers with varying eligibility requirements. Some allow voucher eligibility only to special populations like those with disabilities. Some have income level restrictions on vouchers.

Basically, vouchers as a school choice options has a lot that needs to be addressed at local, state, and federal levels.


5) The Department of Education has incentivized Common Core, but neither Common Core nor any “one-size-fits-all” standards or curriculum have been federally mandated.

I’d like to back up on this one and ask why “foster[ing] Common Core” is considered “beast[ly]”. Common Core is an initiative driven by multiple states that establishes a common set of standard expectations for English Language Arts and Mathematics grade level progress. Common Core is not a curriculum, does not dictate standardized testing, and does not limit education to only the material listed in the standards. Standards are simply a guide that teachers, schools, districts, or states can use. Choices for curriculum and testing rest squarely with state and local authorities as you champion. And coming from Kentucky, the first state to implement these standards, you know that some results of using Common Core have been positive ( I am familiar with criticisms of Common Core related to overall expense for role out, providing guidance only for minimum progress, difficulty in translating to curriculum, limited evidence to date of utility/success, overemphasizing college readiness, deemphasizing creative thinking, and not addressing students with disabilities or ELL students, but it is not clear to me what aspects engender the horror your terms “foster” and “beast” imply.

And now, back to that incentivizing versus mandating issue. Yes, Common Core has been incentivized through Department of Education administered funding. Most notably, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top through the Democratic pushed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 heavily supported Common Core. In addition, numerous NCLB waivers have been granted based partially on efforts to implement Common Core. However, implementing Common Core costs significantly more than the total funds in these incentives; so, this falls into the realm of helping support an expensive project rather than coercing or mandating.

About Lisa 2 Articles
I am a parent, educator, volunteer, and reluctant activist. I have earned a PhD in Education, an MS in Electrical Engineering, and an MA in Science Education. I am also nearing completion of an MS in Statistics. I currently teach for an online university and do freelance curriculum and assessment development as well as track meet timing. I have worked previously in semiconductor manufacturing, educational game design, and secondary teaching. My posts here will often be political; so, it is worth noting that I varyingly self-identify as progressive and humanist.

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