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Hey, Texplainer: One of the federal agencies Rick Perry managed to remember during Wednesday's GOP debate is the U.S. Department of Education. He says he wants to close it. But what exactly would that mean?

First, Gov. Rick Perry's proposal isn't new. The U.S. Department of Education was given cabinet-level status in 1979, and it's been a favorite bugaboo of conservatives ever since. During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan vowed to abolish it, although he was never able to do so. 

In the 2012 campaign, Perry also is not the only one to propose the department's elimination. Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann said in the Fox News debate last month that as president she would "turn off the lights" and "lock the door" of the department. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul has long wanted to shutter it. 

And Perry isn't a stranger to inveighing 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 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 as "a monstrous intrusion into our affairs."

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But what complicates promises like Perry's to get rid of the department, says Rick Hess, an education fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is that neither Perry nor other proponents say whether they intend to do away with all of the department's programs and initiatives — or if it would mean simply moving its duties elsewhere. (For the record, Paul has said that he would do the former.)

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 Department of Education 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 health care 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 health care reform?" Hess 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 education department 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 about how that money going back to the states should be spent, or whether that 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.

Bottom line: Promising to close the U.S. Department of Education is a crowd-pleaser in Republican debates, but it isn't an answer to the next question, which is, what happens to all of the programs — and money — the department manages?

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