State Education Building
State Education Building

The Bottom Line Education: A Republican Opportunity

Originally published at Real Clear Education

In the 1960s and 1970s, two major pieces of federal law began the dismantling of American education. The first was allowing government employees to join unions, and the second was the creation of the federal Department of Education. Republicans should reverse these laws, which have proven detrimental to the efficient and effective functioning of both our K-12 and university systems.

Unionization of Government Employees

Executive Order 10988, signed by President Kennedy in October 1962, granted, for the first time, federal employees the right to engage in collective bargaining. This right was expanded by President Nixon in 1968 with Executive Order 11491, which created the Federal Labor Relations Council. President Ford’s Executive Order 11838, in 1975, amended the 1968 order to expand union rights and was followed, under President Carter, by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 that codified the executive orders into law.

The union trend soon spread to the states. In 1955, only one state allowed collective bargaining for state employees; by 1980, 43 states had such laws. As these laws came into effect, teachers began to organize. In 1960, few teachers were involved in a union, but by 1978, 65% of teachers were in a bargaining unit.

As union membership of educators expanded, so did the power of the two national education unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the America Federation of Teachers (AFT). These two organizations became the nation’s largest donors to political parties, primarily the Democratic Party, which, in turn, set the rules for how our schools should operate.

Unions have systematically removed accountability from public schools, both for academic performance and for how taxpayer funds are spent. Moreover, they have dramatically increased costs by massively expanding adult employment in schools (most of whom are union members). More adult employees generate higher costs and produce more union dues without enhancing performance. In fact, America’s children are not performing academically any better today than in 1970. Today’s K-12 system is really an exorbitant, mediocre (at best) education system that might more accurately be labeled America’s largest adult-employment program.

Franklin Roosevelt had it right in 1937 when he wrote:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service … The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people.

Franklin Roosevelt

Creation of the Department of Education

One of President Carter’s worst mistakes was agreeing to create the Department of Education (DOE) in 1979. The department was formed by taking various education-oriented programs located in different government agencies and consolidating them into one department. 

Until 1957, the federal government’s role in education was quite limited. But the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik that year, followed a few years later by President Johnson’s War on Poverty, dramatically expanded the federal role and funding for education. Between the 1950s and 1979, federal spending on education jumped from 0.3% of GDP to 1.2%.

Over the years, the DOE has produced hundreds of regulations and spent billions of dollars that have negatively affected the operations of both our K-12 schools and our universities.

In the K-12 arena, the DOE has promulgated regulations that dictate how schools operate, whom they allow to attend, and more recently, what they teach. The result has been a dramatic increase in the costs of education, with little to show for it in terms of children’s academic achievement.

Likewise, the DOE has burdened universities with myriad regulations that have had little positive impact on student performance. Further, the advent of the federal student loan program has had the opposite effect than was intended. The hope was that more young people would be able to afford college. But what these loan programs really did was allow universities to spend uncontrollably. For 27 of the 30 years between 1979 and 2009, the price of education has grown at a faster rate than that of medical care. Annual tuition increases have become almost a rite of passage for universities. Today, student debt is the largest debt sector in the U.S. economy, and fewer students are enrolling in American universities

In short, since its formation, the DOE has spent over $2 trillion, with no discernible improvement in student academic achievement at either the K-12 or higher-education levels. The department has been an extremely expensive failure.


The children and young adults of our country have not been well served by either the unionization of our education institutions or by the increased involvement of the federal government. This dire situation is largely the result of bad legislative policy from the Democratic Party, which has controlled public education, both nationally and in the states, for more than 50 years. Parents are crying out for change, and Republicans are starting to listen. Now is the time for the GOP to embrace education-reform priorities. Education must become a primary goal in the party’s messaging.

If elected, Republican officeholders should pursue the following:

  • Terminate the DOE and move education policy back to the state level, where it belongs. The only aspect of the DOE that should be retained is the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This agency provides a valuable service and can be sustained by transferring it to another government department.
  • Eliminate the federal student loan program, but do not “forgive” existing loans. (Loans are not “forgiven” – such debt is only transferred to others who did not sign up to pay them.) Students need to understand that debt is an obligation, not a gift. Also, with the elimination of government-guaranteed student loans, universities would be forced to cut costs, improve efficiency, and lower tuition costs. Current and future students would be the beneficiaries.
  • In right-to-work states, Republican legislators should concentrate on changing laws that hinder innovation in public schools. The U.S. has a 19th-century school system attempting to educate 21st-century students. We need a new system. Places like Singapore and Shanghai, where students lead the world in academic performance, offer a useful template to begin this process.

Democrats have had control for long enough. The Republican Party needs to become the party of education, as some “red” states have started to do. This movement must continue. Nothing will straighten this country out faster than the effective education of our children. Republicans, the ball is in your court.

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Chairman, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Chairman of the Institute's program on public education reform. For nearly 30 years, he has devoted his life work to transforming public education. For two years, he traveled the country studying America's public education system and authored, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education. Mr. Nielsen was awarded the Harvard Business School's 2004 Alumni Achievement Award. In 2009, he received the Leadership Award from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.
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