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The Department of Education’s budget tug of war: Congress vs. presidents
Brookings
2024.02.27
Candidates in the 2024 Republican primary have echoed decades?long calls to substantially scale back or even eliminate the Department of Education. What candidates mean by “shutting down” is vague. It could indicate a type of restructuring that folds federal programs into block grants or combines the Department of Education with the Department of Labor. Regardless, the message seems clear: Federal spending in education-like the federal role in education-is bloated and should be cut.
Considering the upcoming election, this rhetoric raises a question: If the president wants to cut federal spending in education, would he or she realistically be able to do it? How successful have presidential budget requests for ED been over time?
With that in mind, this piece examines the relationship between which party controls Congress, which party controls the White House, and funding levels for elementary and secondary programs channeled through the U.S. Department of Education (the focus on K-12 is for simplicity, as the higher education budget numbers are much harder to pin down). We walk through trends in total K-12 funding, and the differences between the president’s budget and what is appropriated, over several decades. To make funding comparable across time, we use inflation-adjusted dollars, using September 2023 as our benchmark.