Why Education Department may be safe for now, even though it's a GOP target

In remarks overheard by reporters Sunday night, Mitt Romney says he would keep the Education Department, although he'd reduce its budget.

Michael Conroy/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves after speaking at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, Friday, April 13.

The US Department of Education is probably safe, for now. No matter who wins in November.

It's been a favored target of the GOP presidential hopefuls, with candidates from Ron Paul to Rick Perry promising it would be one of the first government agencies to face the chopping block.

But – at least according to remarks overheard by reporters Sunday night, during a fundraising event – Mitt Romney would keep it. Although reduce its budget.

"I'm going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them. Some eliminate, but I'm probably not going to lay out just exactly which ones are to go," Mr. Romney told donors, according to reporters standing on the sidewalk who overheard his remarks. Although he went on to say that Housing and Urban Development (HUD) might be eliminated, he said he had different plans for education. "The Department of Education I will either consolidate with another agency or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller. I'm not going to get rid of it entirely."

He also addressed teachers unions in his overheard remarks, promising his donors that he'd stand up to them. "The unions will put in hundreds of millions of dollars" to support President Obama's campaign, Romney said. "There's nothing like it on our side."

The smallest cabinet-level department, Education is also one of the most recent. It was established under President Carter and started operating in 1980.

And it's long been a whipping boy of many Republicans, who argue that the federal government has no business being involved in education.

Abolition of the department has been part of the official GOP platform at various times since it was established (and Ronald Reagan tried, and failed, to eliminate it). George W. Bush, however, increased the federal government's role in education with the creation of No Child Left Behind.

These days, Mr. Obama's policies on education – in which he's greatly increased the department's power and used it to push for state laws favoring accountability – are more in accord with some conservatives' views than with, say, the teachers unions'. Indeed, there are rifts within both the Democratic and Republican parties about how the federal government should approach education.

It's not a topic Romney has elaborated on much so far. But in 1994, when he ran for a US Senate seat against Edward Kennedy, he did favor eliminating the department. It was a stance that hurt him at the time and that he brought up in a recent interview to illustrate why he's vague on some positions.

“One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney told The Weekly Standard.

Between now and November, Romney will probably need to get more specific on some of his proposals – including his views on education. He almost certainly favors less of a federal role, and less federal money, in education than Obama or Mr. Bush do. But if his remarks to donors can be believed, the department is likely to stick around awhile longer.

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