During last week's GOP presidential debate, several candidates drew applause by calling for the elimination of the federal Department of Education.

It's not a new argument, nor is it a good one. Since the department was separated from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter administration, critics of federal policymaking have made it a favorite piñata.

Attacking federal departments may be popular in some quarters, but when the future of our nation's schools is at stake, such talk is irresponsible.

Doing away with the department would end the federal government's role in K-12 education despite current and historical evidence that public education is made better by federal oversight.

A number of landmark policies in public education were developed by the federal government, especially in the areas of civil rights, equal treatment and access.

For example, Title IX requires more gender equity in sports, while Title I provides additional resources for economically disadvantaged kids.

Because of federal rules, students with special needs or disabilities are entitled to be educated. The Education Department also fills a critical role in collecting and analyzing school data on student performance.

The department sets the tone for U.S. education and offers incentives to move schools in a positive direction. During the Obama administration, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has encouraged education reform through the competition for Race to the Top grants.

As a result, many states have passed legislation to offer alternative teacher licensure, better teacher evaluation systems and expansion of school choice.

Apart from the presidential aspirants, many Republicans have praised Duncan for using Race to the Top to push for innovation and reform.

Admittedly, the record isn't spotless. The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law overreached with some of its requirements and set unrealistic goals.

And there is strong bipartisan agreement that those rules will change through federal waivers and ultimately a new law.

But one failed experiment shouldn't doom the department.

Local control has become a kind of mantra -- the whole notion of getting government out of the way so that things like education can be managed by parents and their elected local and state officials.

The reality is that most schools are already primarily run by local entities.

Ten percent or less of most school district budgets comes from the federal government, so most financial decisions are made by the states and local school boards.

That level of local control is essential, but there is still a national interest -- and benefit -- in having federal involvement in K-12 education.