Ryan Kelly, Republication candidate for Governor, attends a Freedom Rally in support of First Amendment rights and to protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer, outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on May 15, 2021. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
Ryan Kelly, Republication candidate for Governor, attends a Freedom Rally in support of First Amendment rights and to protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer, outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on May 15, 2021. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

MICHIGAN–Ryan Kelley, a Republican candidate for governor in Michigan, said during a radio interview that the federal Department of Education should be “terminated.” 

“A lot of our agencies in the state of Michigan are funded by the federal government, and that’s a big problem for the state of Michigan, because then we allow the federal government to pull all the strings and make all the decisions,” Kelley told WTCM Radio host Ron Jolly on April 20. “With our Department of Education — number one, we have to get off of the federal dollars. We have to bring that back into the state so that the state can control that. The Department of Education in the federal government should be terminated anyway. That’s not a constitutional role of the federal government. They should be totally out of education and allow that up to the states.”  (Listen at 10:22 – 13:48)

Kelley didn’t discuss the impact of such a radical move on Michigan. 

The Federal Department of Education (ED), established in 1979, works with local school districts to ensure high quality education across the US, and to protect the civil rights of marginalized students by promoting equal access to education.

Jesse O’Connell, Senior Vice President of Education for the Center for American Progress, said that funding for education across the US comes mostly from local property taxes. The Department of Education distributes federal funds in a way that ensures schools in less-affluent areas have the resources they need. They also fund programs that help students stay on track, fed, and out of trouble through the summer.

Last year, Michigan received that funding for “extending summer programs and making sure Michigan had funds” to keep schools open and safe during the pandemic, O’Connell said.

During his campaign for president, Donald Trump proposed closing the ED, citing “so much waste” at the department that he wanted to cut it to the tune of more than 490,000 public school teacher positions nationwide, $15 billion in Title I funding annually, and $175 million used annually to improve the quality of education in hard-to-staff schools.

Kelley has been echoing Trump’s campaign cries throughout his bid for governor, arguing that the ED’s role is unconstitutional. In November 2021, he wrote in a press release that if elected, he would “institute anti-communism curriculum, institute Constitution education laying the foundation of freedom and limited government,” and that he would place “cameras in every public-school classroom that can be live stream monitored by parents at any time.” He ended the release with the bolded sentence: “Should the Department of Education choose to not PROMPTLY implement these policy changes, I will immediately draft an Executive Order eliminating the Department of Education.”

Kelley’s claim that the ED is unconstitutional is highly arguable. While the US Constitution, written in 1787, does not specifically make allowances for national oversight of education, it does protect the authority of the federal government to provide for the nation’s “general welfare.” Since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, reliably high-quality education for America’s children has been widely considered in the nation’s best interest. 

Kelley’s campaign website highlights his plan to “realign our country’s values with our education system” by removing all DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) staff positions, advocating for school voucher programs, and requiring that “schools teach academics.”

Also during the WTCM radio interview, Kelley was quick to deride “the sexualization of our children” in public schools, aligning himself with the recent conservative pushback against LGBTQ visibility in schools. In 2022 alone, hundreds of bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. to roll back protections for LGBTQ people

Additionally, Kelley was critical of the Whitmer administration’s decision to put an extra $95 on Michiganders’ bridge cards in April. Bridge cards function as debit cards that can be used at most Michigan supermarkets and allow the Michigan government to assist eligible citizens with food insecurity. Food insecurity puts people at greater risk of negative health outcomes, including higher rates of chronic illness. The number of food-insecure individuals and families in Michigan has risen since the onset of COVID-19 two years ago. Kelley interpreted this move as a purely cynical attempt by Whitmer to win people’s votes.

“It’s another ploy for Whitmer to try to buy votes,” he said. “These leftist policies always end up with destruction, lack of self-confidence in students, and the inability for our state and our country to excel. And that needs to change.”

Jason Salzman contributed to this report.