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Former Secretaries Urge Abolishing E.D.

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Washington

Two former Secretaries of Education urged a House panel last week to abolish the agency they once managed.

William J. Bennett and Lamar Alexander said the department--particularly under the Clinton Administration--has been too bureaucratic, regulatory, and meddlesome, in effect stifling such innovations as school vouchers. The department finances too many programs, they said, and most could be better handled by states.

Predictably, Democrats sparred with Mr. Bennett, an outspoken Secretary under President Ronald Reagan, and Mr. Alexander, a 1996 G.O.P. presidential candidate who held the post under President George Bush, over their suggestion to abolish the department and send most federal K-12 dollars to states with no strings attached.

But even some Republicans on the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities' oversight subcommittee, which held the hearing on the fate of the agency, could not accept the proposition that American education would be better off without it.

Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, pointed out that Republicans have supported and helped create the kinds of federal programs Mr. Bennett and Mr. Alexander see as unnecessary and for which they blame the Clinton Administration.

Mr. Cunningham said there are "many things" in President Clinton's Goals 2000 strategy that he likes. Mr. Clinton "takes a hit on this and he doesn't deserve it," Mr. Cunningham said.

But Mr. Alexander, who proposed America 2000, a campaign somewhat similar to Goals 2000, disagreed.

"Goals 2000 is a slick way to make it look like America 2000," he said. "It turns a national movement into a federal program and almost everyone outside Washington knows the difference."

Mr. Cunningham also challenged the former Secretaries for not downsizing the department when they had the chance.

But Mr. Bennett said the abolition of the agency was not politically viable while he ran it. "The facts and circumstances of Congress have changed, and that's the bottom line," he said, in a reference to the new G.O.P. majority.

Should Not 'Bog Us Down'

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the full education committee, acknowledged after the hearing that his panel will likely consider legislation to abolish the department. While he did not reveal his opinion on the issue, he said it should not "bog us down."

"I hope that it doesn't become the center of what we do," he added.

In their proposal, which is the basis for legislation now being drafted, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Alexander specifically call for eliminating:

  • The National Education Standards and Improvement Council, which was created by the Goals 2000 law to certify academic standards submitted by states as well as voluntary national standards;
  • Gender-equity provisions in Goals 2000 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and
  • A Goals 2000 mandate that states establish opportunity-to-learn standards or strategies.

Mr. Bennett and Mr. Alexander called for bundling most federal K-12 programs into a block grant, and combining smaller higher-education programs into another one. The main financial-aid programs, such as student loans and Pell Grants, should be transferred to another agency to administer, perhaps the Treasury Department, they said.

Mr. Bennett and Mr. Alexander said that special-education aid could be included in the main K-12 block grant or a separate special-services block grant, or be transferred to the Health and Human Services Department.

Civil-rights enforcement could be transferred to the Justice Department, they said, and the National Education Goals Panel can handle education statistics.

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