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An Agency Left Behind?

Before he uttered the now famous "oops" in Thursday's presidential debate, one of the federal agencies Gov. Rick Perry said he wanted to eliminate was the Department of Education. But what exactly would that mean?

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Before he uttered the now famous "oops" in Thursday's presidential debate, one of the federal agencies Gov. Rick Perry said he wanted to eliminate was the Department of Education. But what exactly would that mean?

The proposal is not new — others in the 2012 GOP field have made the pledge before. Michele Bachmann said as president she would "turn off the lights" and "lock the door" of the department at the October Fox News debate. Ron Paul has long wanted to shutter it. Ronald Reagan was the first presidential candidate to say he wanted to ax the federal agency created during the Jimmy Carter administration, and that was part of the national Republican Party platform from 1980 to 1996. 

Perry isn't a stranger to railing against federal involvement in education, either. Under his leadership, Texas was one of the earliest states to reject Race to the Top money from the Barack Obama administration and remains among the few that have not adopted the national common core curriculum standards. He has referred to the No Child Left Behind Act — a product of the George W. Bush administration — as "a monstrous intrusion into our affairs."

But what complicates cries like Perry's to get rid of the department, says Rick Hess, an education fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is that they don't say whether they intend to do away with all of those federal programs — or if that would mean simply moving the department's duties elsewhere. (For the record, Paul has said that he wants to do away with the federal programs.) Responsible for administering billions of dollars in federal aid, including grants to college students and public schools serving low-income and special needs children, collecting statistics on the country's more than 13,000 school districts, and enforcing federal education laws, the DOE is the 15th largest federal agency. Before it existed, many of those tasks were accomplished through a now-extinct federal agency called the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

"If you ask a candidate about healthcare reform as enacted last year and they said, 'Well I want to shut down Health and Human Services,' the proper response is okay, but are you going to do away with healthcare reform?" he says, "Because having a cabinet agency is different from all of the programs that go on underneath that agency."

The tax plan that Perry released in late October doesn't zero out DOE funding. It proposes slashing about half of it, which he estimates would save $25 billion in the first year — and sending the rest back to the states. The Perry campaign hasn't offered more details how that money going back to the states should be spent, or whether it means a Perry administration would end programs like Title I funding and Pell grants. 

"Unfortunately, the 'turn the lights out' or 'the agency will be gone' soaks up so much oxygen that these guys haven't really been pushed to be any more specific," Hess says.

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