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Decades-old idea of axing federal Department of Education revived in Nevada Senate race

Sam Brown wants to take “D.C. bureaucrats” out of the education system, while candidates to his right support scrapping the agency, a stance Brown held in 2022.
Eric Neugeboren
Eric Neugeboren
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
EducationElection 2024Elections

In 2022, Sam Brown, then running as an insurgent GOP Senate primary rival against  establishment-backed Adam Laxalt, proposed eliminating the federal agency tasked with administering financial aid, collecting data about schools and monitoring educational programs and discrimination: the Department of Education.

In a debate, Brown called for cutting the agency, among other Cabinet-level agencies, to reduce federal spending and cut into the federal deficit. At the time, Brown suggested that departments that exist at the state level, such as education or transportation, do not need a federal counterpart.

Two years later, his stance has softened somewhat as the GOP front-runner in this year’s Senate race — his campaign website is now focused on empowering parents rather than bureaucrats when it comes to education. 

“When you allow bureaucrats to prioritize outside agendas over the development of our children, kids lose every time,” Brown said in a statement to The Nevada Independent. “We need to get a handle on the out-of-control and ineffective budget from the U.S. Department of Education, kick D.C. bureaucrats out of our classrooms, and let kids be kids."

But Brown’s primary challengers this time around are taking up the agency abolition mantle, a proposal with potentially drastic implications on student financial aid and federal accountability of schools. 

Jeff Gunter, the U.S. ambassador to Iceland under former President Donald Trump, and former Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, a vocal denier of the 2020 election results, each list eliminating the Department of Education as policy goals on their campaign websites, with Gunter referring to the agency as “useless and unneeded.” Trump said last year that he supported closing the department, but his efforts to rein in the agency during his presidency fell flat.

But while calling to cut the department still remains a hallmark of conservative bonafides, many Senate candidates’ stances are reflective of an increasing focus among “parents’ rights” in education. Tony Grady, another candidate, points to “reestablishing parental choice” as his preferred education stance.

The proposals to abolish the department are part of a GOP movement that has existed since the agency’s inception in 1980, as Republicans have questioned federal involvement in education, where policies are typically addressed at the district level. The efforts have struggled to get off the ground amid congressional opposition — especially to phasing out popular aid programs — and even a Republican president’s vast expansion of the agency’s scope in the name of greater accountability.

The agency launched under President Jimmy Carter; Ronald Reagan, who was challenging Carter for the presidency that year, called for the agency’s elimination in his campaign.

But three years later, a landmark report on the American education system from a federal commission established by Reagan’s secretary of education concluded that the federal government had a key role to play in education, with responsibilities such as data collection, research, curriculum development and student financial aid.

In the ensuing years, there would be minimal headwinds on eliminating the department, but it remained a policy goal among key Republicans in the 1990s, including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and presidential nominee and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS).

The federal education system saw its largest expansion of authority under Republican President George W. Bush with the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which increased the federal government’s role in holding schools accountable for student performance.

“Have there been a lot of serious efforts? No,” Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the center-right think tank American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview. “Have Republicans meant this? Sure, in some cases, but they just haven't gotten very far.”

Hess said legislators do not want to end some of the popular programs administred by the department, including Pell Grants, student loans and financial support for students with disabilities.

“We've seen no appetite over the years for the Republican caucus in Congress to actually do that,” Hess said.

Sam Brown, GOP candidate for Nevada U.S. Senate, during the NV Republican Club meeting in Las Vegas on March 1, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

That more nuanced position is reflected today by Brown, whose campaign said he still considers the department bloated and is interested in cutting programs that are redundant with state agencies, but that his approach would require reviewing programs for waste and abuse first.

The Nevada Department of Education declined to comment on concerns that the federal agency has programs that are redundant with state education departments.

In a statement, Brown narrowed in on another popular conservative buzzword, rather than calling for the department’s elimination — “woke.”

“We need to get back to prioritizing the basics for our students — reading, writing, arithmetic, practical life skills — and not woke ideologies that have no business in the classroom,” he said.

Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University, said he is not surprised that underdogs in the race are leaning into calls to end the agency, while as front-runner, Brown is being more guarded.

“Sam Brown seems to be … being a little bit more mysterious about the specifics of what he'd do on education, and instead just hit on the theme of localism and keeping the federal bureaucracy out,” Henig said in an interview. “That's a strategy that makes sense if you think ‘We're the one who's gonna run [in] the general.’”

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) panned Brown as a “MAGA extremist” nonetheless who would support abolishing federal agencies, relying on his previous stance.

“Eliminating the Department of Education would be a disaster for Nevada — resulting in massive cuts to our schools and dire consequences for students in kindergarten all the way through college,” Rosen said in a statement to The Nevada Independent.

Henig added that it makes strategic sense for more conservative candidates to lean into abolishing the department, because it fits into their broader political goals.

“Eliminating the Department of Education, that’s my specific of how I'm going to attack the deep state, how I'm going to attack federal overregulation, how I'm going to attack Democratic overreach from Washington, D.C.,” he said.


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