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Education Department Has Survived, But Not Without Changes

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Washington--A. Neal Shedd, one of about 5,000 Education Department employees who will soon have a new boss, has seen them come and go in the federal education bureaucracy since he started working at the office of education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1959.

He worked under Abraham Ribicoff, hew secretary in the Kennedy Administration. He was there during the Carter Administration when Mr. Ribicoff, then a Democratic Senator from Connecticut, championed the creation of a separate Cabinet-level department of education.

And in 1980, when President Reagan claimed a mandate to abolish the department and to deregulate federal programs, Mr. Shedd, the department's director of the division of regulations management, carried out the order to eliminate many of the regulations he had authorized in a previous era.

"He's our boss. He said do it, so we did it," explained Mr. Shedd, the veteran bureaucrat, of his assignment.

Short, Turbulent History

William J. Bennett, 41, the secretary-designate of education, will be taking over an agency that has had a short, yet turbulent history, and that has changed significantly in some ways during President Reagan's first term.

Six months after the department's doors opened in May 1980, Mr. Reagan came along, pledging to shut them.

Although Congressional opposition and the sudden national interest in improving the nation's schools prompted the President to shelve the plan to dismantle the department, his policy signals have had a notable impact on it.

Staff Reductions

The Education Department is considerably smaller than it was four years ago. Its staff has shrunk from 7,400 in 1980 to just over 5,000 today, making it the government's smallest Cabinet-level department.

Perhaps hardest hit by the Administration's efforts to trim the education bureaucracy was the office of elementary and secondary education, which oversees the largest programs. It administers about $5 billion in categorical aid and grants to state and local educational agencies--including compensatory education, impact aid, and Chapter 2 block grants.

The number of positions in the office has been cut from nearly 400 to 231. It was reorganized twice between 1981 and 1983, leading to protracted job-shuffling among both career bureaucrats and political appointees.

The first reorganization was necessitated by the passage of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981, which eliminated some 30 separate programs--from desegregation aid to programs for the gifted and talented--administered by the office, merging their functions into block grants.

Two Reorganizations

"The first reorganization had logic to it," said Leslie R. Wolfe, former director of the Women's Educational Equity Program and currently di3rector of a Washington-based advocacy group, Project on Equal Education Rights. "You had to abolish the office of metric education, since there was no longer any metric-education program."

But at a Congressional hearing in September 1983, following the second reorganization, several legislators expressed concern about the quality of life of those officials remaining in the office.

Department officials said they implemented the second reorganization to increase efficiency, but it was seen by some Administration critics to have political purposes. The restructuring downgraded the Women's Educational Equity Program, leading to the departure of Ms. Wolfe, as well as migrant-education efforts and Title IV desegregation assistance.

Civil-Rights Activity

The Education Department's office for civil-rights, which must enforce the government's major civil-rights statutes in education, has been assailed by civil-rights advocates, who charge that the Reagan Administration is making little effort to enforce the laws prohibitng discrimination on the basis of sex, race, handicap, or age. The office can either mediate a dispute or recommend stronger action against institutions that discriminate.

One complaint, made in an analysis by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an umbrella group of 165 organizations, charged that ocr was "increasingly accepting promises of remedial action from noncomplying institutions that are so vague or general as to afford little assurance that the violations will be corrected."

But in the year after the judge presiding in Adams v. Bell, the longest-running civil-rights suit against the government, found that ocr was failing to resolve complaints of discrimination quickly enough, the office took more enforcement action than it had in the previous 10 years, according to Phyllis McClure, deputy director of the naacp Legal Defense and Educational fund. (The order has since been vacated.)

The judge's 1983 court order required that ocr "resolve" about 761 cases within the year--which it did--according Harry M. Singleton, assistant secretary for civil rights. By mid-1984, the department still had about an 800-case backlog of complaints, Mr. Singleton said.

Still, despite reductions in its budget and staff ceilings, ocr has not spent all of the money appropriated by the Congress or filled all of its authorized positions.

In fiscal 1983, for example, ocr spent only $39 million of the $44.9 million the Congress allocated. It used $5 million to pay postage costs of other department offices, Harry M. Singleton, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education last March.

Of the $49.5 million appropriated for ocr last year, Mr. Singleton said, the office planned return to the U.S. Treasury up to $7 million.

Although the President and former Secretary Bell have frequently acknowledged that educational research is one of the few appropriate areas for federal involvement, the department has scaled back its research effort. In addition, the educational-research agenda has been re-oriented to put greater emphasis on nonpublic schools and more "pragmatic'' research, at the expense of long-term "educational research and development," according to Laurie Garduque, director of governmental and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association.

The status and activities of the National Institute of Education, the largest research unit attached to the department, have emerged as divisive political issues within the Reagan Administration and between liberals and conservatives. But whether educational research has suffered significantly as a result of funding cuts and what some critics term its "politicization" will not be known for at least 10 years, suggested Ms. Garduque.

Support for nie has fallen from $73 million in fiscal 1980 to $51.2 million this year. And its current budget, Ms. Garduque said, is allocated differently than in the institute's "heydey years" of 1978 and 1979.

According to a breakdown compiled by the aera, educational laboratories and centers received 62 percent of nie funds last fiscal year; in fiscal 1980, labs and centers received 41 percent. According to Ms. Garduque, "there is no longer a balance between long-term educational research and development and more pragmatic research."

Despite that shift in priorities, many conservatives argue that nie is a liberal bastion and have worked to close it down. Meanwhile, liberals believe that conservatives have taken it over, Ms. Garduque noted.

The Reagan Administration's education agenda has had a marked impact on the Education Department's regulatory role, prompting both praise for its effort to return decisionmaking power to localities and criticism for its failure to provide adequate guidance to school officials on how to abide by federal laws.

Mr. Shedd explained that the main precept of "the principle of deregulation" is to write rules that resemble the corresponding statute as closely as possible.

The Education Department, he said, is the only agency that has a "guide" instructing program administrators on how to deregulate their programs. Contained in a thick red loose-leaf binder that he and his staff put together in 1981, the guide has been much in demand by other agencies, he said.

According to Mr. Shedd, he and his staff members have so far removed 44 sets of rules and are halfway through their review of the remaining 225. He claimed that this reduction in paperwork and compliance burdens on states and local school districts has saved them more than $1 billion a year.

But the department's efforts to substantially alter regulations for bilingual- and special-education programs sparked widespread protest and were strongly rebuffed by the Congress in 1981 and 1982. Last year, the Congress also rejected the Administration's attempt to add vocational education to the block-grants program and last year passed its own reauthorization package.

Budget Higher Than Ever

Budget-trimming, priority-shifting, and political re-orienting activities notwithstanding, Mr. Bennett will take over an agency that employees note is not only functioning but spending more than ever, with a budget that is likely to top $18 billion this year.

The Congressional Research Service reported last year that "overall, federal support for education today appears strikingly similar to such support prior to the Reagan Administration."

The department's top political positions are fully staffed at the moment. Those close to the Secretary-designate say he has not yet shown much desire to sweep out the seven assistant secretaries, three deputy undersecretaries, and other high-ranking political appointees now at the department.

Among career employees, however, a trace of both curiosity and anxiety appear to accompany the wait for the arrival of a leader who has not yet said how he feels about the agency he will run. As one career civil servant observed, "They don't know what he's going to do, so there's some apprehension."

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