Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie wants the Department of Education go the way the dodo. He introduced a pretty simple bill yesterday which would have the department shut down by the end of next year. His reasons for getting rid of the department are also simple: the federal government doesn’t have the constitutional power to dictate how and what kids learn.

 “Unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. should not be in charge of our children’s intellectual and moral development. States and local communities are best positioned to shape curricula that meet the needs of their students. Schools should be accountable. Parents have the right to choose the most appropriate educational opportunity for their children, including home school, public school, or private school.”

The Department of Education is actually one of the youngest federal agencies, having been around for about 37 years. Massie’s news release on the bill points out President Ronald Reagan wanted to see it done away with in 1981.

“Similarly, education is the principal responsibility of local school systems, teachers, parents, citizen boards, and State governments. By eliminating the Department of Education less than 2 years after it was created, we cannot only reduce the budget but ensure that local needs and preferences, rather than the wishes of Washington, determine the education of our children.”

It’s always nice when Republicans decide to adhere to the values they claim to promote, and try to shrink the federal government (can we get on with dismantling DHS too?). What’s interesting is why the department was created: to help President Jimmy Carter get re-elected. Via The Washington Post from 1980 with a massive h/t to Reason’s Anthony L. Fisher (emphasis mine).

The NEA gave its first presidential endorsement ever in 1976, when Walter Mondale promised them, at an NEA annual meeting, that the Carter administration would form an education department. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, more delegates — 180 — belonged to the NEA than any other group of any kind. They’ve endorsed Carter for 1980, and were a major force in getting delegates to the Iowa caucuses. The Carter-Mondale campaign paid Hufstedler’s expenses on a trip to Iowa, where she appeared with Rosalynn at an ERA fund-raiser, and met the next morning with a bipartisan group of educators.

Is the department, then, a creature of the NEA?

“That’s true,” says NEA executive director Terry Herndon. “There’d be no department without the NEA.”

It should also be pointed out state and local governments are the primary investors into public schools. But R Street Institute’s Kevin Kosar points out the federal government still put its grubby, fat fingers into as many pies as possible.

Today, federal funds are less than 10 percent of elementary and secondary education spending. Localities and states pay the rest. But while federal funding is modest, Washington’s sway is not. Title 20, the corpus of federal education laws, runs more than 1,000 pages. The Department of Education spends $70 billion each year and issues reams of regulations and policy guidance, spelling out in exacting detail what states, localities and schools must do to keep the federal funds flowing. With that leverage, federal education policy has metastasized. The anxiety voiced by Rep. Rogers in 1867 was not unfounded.

No Child Left Behind, signed in 2002, is a case in point. NCLB was a significant retooling of Lyndon Johnson’s landmark education law. The original ESEA, in 1965, was 32 pages long; NCLB is 670 pages. Its reforms to Title I aimed to remedy the stubborn black-white, rich-poor achievement gap by toughening the conditions of aid to require states to adopt stronger education standards, test students more frequently and demonstrate all children were making “adequate yearly progress.” Schools that failed at these goals would be reorganized, and their students could be freed to attend other public schools. The new requirements had bite, and complaints about “punishing teachers,” “too much testing” and the subsequent rise of Common Core standards erupted from both left and right, with palpable anger about Washington intruding far too much into local schooling.

$70B is no small chunk of change, but is something which can be axed out. Think about it. If the federal government didn’t hand out this much money, maybe school districts and local governments wouldn’t push their populaces to approve humongous sports stadiums (looking at you, Texas).

There are going to be people out there who say eliminating the Department of Education would lower teacher salaries. I don’t think that’s necessarily going to be the case. Salaries tend to be negotiated at either the local level (between school districts and teachers unions) or at the state level. The federal government has given some money towards certain teacher salaries (mainly through the stimulus of 2009), but it appears most of the funding is through Pell Grants for college students. In fact, even the Department of Education’s website admits it doesn’t do that much (emphasis mine).

Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States. It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation. The structure of education finance in America reflects this predominant State and local role. Of an estimated $1.15 trillion being spent nationwide on education at all levels for school year 2012-2013, a substantial majority will come from State, local, and private sources. This is especially true at the elementary and secondary level, where about 92 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources.

That means the Federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is about 8 percent, which includes funds not only from the Department of Education (ED) but also from other Federal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start program and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch program.

This is why Massie’s bill is important, and the GOP should be celebrating the idea of killing the Department of Education. There’s no doubt education is important, but it’s best to let parents, teachers, and local school districts decide how to do said education.