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Trump’s Art of the Deal: Merge Education and Labor Departments?

The White House publicly released a report called Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century on Thursday, June 21.

First among the 32 organizational reform priorities proposed by President Donald Trump is merging the departments of education (ED) and labor (DOL) into a single entity: the Department of Education and the Workforce. According to the Mission Alignment Imperatives section of the report, the new agency would be “charged with meeting the needs of American students and workers from education and skill development to workplace protection to retirement security. As part of the merger, the administration also proposes significant government-wide workforce development program consolidations, streamlining separate programs in order to increase efficiencies and better serve American workers.”

Naturally, this idea has met with endorsements, skepticism and everything in between — as it should be. The $60-billion-plus ED has about 4,000 employees and dozens of programs for K-20 students, while the $9.7-billion has DOL has about 15,800 employees and dozens of training and employment programs for adults. So any presidential recommendation to merge them represents a herculean task. And what the Trump administration has outlined is a template, not a plan of action. His team will roll one out in due time.

In the interim, interested stakeholders must begin a healthy conversation about the proposed merger that includes questions about what, why, how, when, or if it should occur at all, before we jump to a final conclusion about the immediate fate of ED. We should determine whether Congress has an appetite to tackle this issue. We also should assess a substantive strategy for implementation, when it becomes available. Until we know these things, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of ED’s death through merger is greatly exaggerated.

Although it is too early to know for certain what a real merger will look like, it is never too soon to examine previous administrations’ reorganization efforts to glean insights about what we can and cannot expect from mergers of federal agencies.

The presidential desire to streamline federal agencies through mergers is not new. The Economy Act of 1932, a part of Depression-era plans to promote growth, empowered the president to reorganize the executive branch of government, subject to congressional review. Unless the House, Senate or both chambers passed a resolution to reject the president’s reorganization plan within a specified time frame — called a “legislative veto” — it became law.

Between 1932 and 1984 — the year the Economy Act expired — more than 100 reorganization plans were submitted to Congress. Every president from Herbert Hoover to Ronald Reagan had the authority to reorganize executive agencies through a merger or another initiative, with at least two reorganization plans taking effect for every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter.

Education played into several reorganization efforts, although not every effort was successful. For example, Hoover’s 1932 reorganizational proposal included the creation of a single Department for Education, Health, and Recreational Activities. Congress rejected this plan. Later that decade Congress approved President Roosevelt’s Reorganization Plan №1 as part of the Reorganization Act of 1939. His plan created a Federal Security Agency (FSA) by merging the National Youth Administration, a New Deal education and jobs program established in 1935 for people ages 16–25; Public Health Services, established in 1789 to prevent the spread of diseases; the independently managed Social Security Board, established in 1935; and the Office of Education, which had functioned in some capacity under the Department of the Interior since 1868.

Roosevelt assured the American people in his 1939 Message to Congress that his intention to transfer the Office of Education to FSA was not a push for more federal control: “This transfer [from the Department of the Interior to the FSA] does not increase or extend the activities of the Federal Government in respect to education, but does move the existing activities into a grouping where the work may be carried on more efficiently and expeditiously, and where coordination and the elimination of overlapping may be better accomplished.”

The federal responsibility for education remained in FSA for more than a decade.

On March 12, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower submitted his Reorganization Plan №1 to Congress. It became one of 11 of his plans Congress approved during his tenure in the White House — ranking him third for the number of congressional approvals, following Harry Truman with 34 and Lyndon B. Johnson with 16. Eisenhower’s plan abolished the FSA and transferred duties for Public Health Services and the Office of Education to the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

Eisenhower explained his rationale for this reorganization: “The purpose of this plan is to improve the administration of the vital health, education, and social security functions now being carried on in the Federal Security Agency by giving them departmental rank. Such action is demanded by the importance and magnitude of these functions, which affect the well-being of millions of our citizens.”

Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon also implemented executive agency reorganization plans, but none of them sought to transfer education out of HEW. President Jimmy Carter, however, made this a priority for his administration. He made his intentions clear in his 1978 State of the Union address: “We’ve brought together parts of 11 Government agencies to create a new Department of Energy. And now it’s time to take another major step by creating a separate Department of Education.”

With support from Congress, Carter signed the Department of Education Organization Act on Oct. 17, 1979. For the first time in the twentieth century, education achieved cabinet-level status as a stand-alone agency. Although Congress did establish a “Department of Education” in 1867, a year later Congress merged it into the Department of the Interior. Why? Concerns arose that a federal department would be too involved in local school issues — a historical concern that remains alive 150 years later.

ED survived Reagan’s tenure, but not because he supported the idea of a federal education department. In his 1982 State of the Union address, Reagan said, “The budget plan I submit to you on February 8th will realize major savings by dismantling the Departments of Energy and Education.” He continued: “In 1960, the Federal Government had 132 categorical grant programs, costing $7 billion. When I took office, there were approximately 500, costing nearly a hundred billion dollars — 13 programs for energy, 36 for pollution control, 66 for social services, 90 for education. And here in the Congress, it takes at least 166 committees just to try to keep track of them.”

ED remained intact during the tenure of other presidents for various reasons. Republican Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were not fans of substantial federal involvement in education. Still, they relied on ED to advance parental choice, student achievement and school accountability initiatives. Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were fans of a stronger federal role in education, although Clinton was less so than Obama. They relied on ED to advance public education through traditional, charter and magnet school models along with support for professional development and incentive models for teachers, staff and school districts.

For comparison purposes, it is worth noting that while Obama did not push to reorganize ED, he supported the executive prerogative to restructure government that his predecessors enjoyed for more than 50 years. He noted this on January 13, 2012, when he announced his intention to consolidate six federal departments and agencies focused on business and trade into one new department.


Practically speaking, Obama believed “consolidating six agencies into one more efficient department to promote competitiveness, exports and American business” made sense. He wanted to make it easier for small business owners and large corporations to remain competitive in both U.S. and international markets. But there was a philosophy of government underpinning Obama’s decision:

“We live in a 21st-century economy, but we’ve still got a government organized for the 20th century. Our economy has fundamentally changed — as has the world — but the government has not. The needs of our citizens have fundamentally changed but their government has not. …Right now, there are six departments and agencies focused primarily on business and trade in the federal government. …In this case, six is not better than one. Sometimes more is better; this is not one of those cases, because it produces redundancy and inefficiency.”

Departments and agencies under consideration for consolidation by Obama included the U.S. Department of Commerce’s core business and trade functions; the Small Business Administration; the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; the Export-Import Bank; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; and, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. But his plan to merge these agencies did not materialize, for a host of reasons. Nevertheless, his proposed consolidation is one of a long line of examples of an administration’s desire to reorganize federal agencies to promote a philosophy of government.

The same is true for President Trump in 2018.

Why is he proposing to merge ED and DOL now? What is his philosophy of government? How much of this is political versus educational in nature?

Gerard Robinson is the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO).

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