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Officials Debate Plans To Scrap or Demote E.D.

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The House education committee held its first hearing last week on separate pieces of legislation that would eliminate the federal Education Department or merge it with the Labor Department.

Meanwhile, the proper federal role in education--and whether a federal education department is needed to fulfill that role--was the topic of a National Press Club forum here last week.

At the hearing before the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, a former committee member who is the chairman of the Republican conference, said the proposed "back-to-basics education reform act" would protect local decisionmaking by eliminating the Education Department and replacing the bulk of its programs with education block grants to be administered by the states.

The proposal, which has not been formally introduced, was drafted by a task force of House freshmen that included several members of the education committee. (See Education Week, 6/7/95.)

Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., a member of the panel, argued that his competing proposal to merge the Education and Labor departments would maintain a national focus on education and workforce preparation that could get lost under the task-force plan. (See Education Week, 2/22/95.)

"There's no debate that there's a legitimate federal role in 1995 [to help insure] a skilled workforce for the 21st century and beyond," Mr. Gunderson said. "That's a national interest; that's not a Wisconsin interest."

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the education committee, has endorsed the merger proposal, although he maintained a more neutral stance during the hearing last week. Mr. Gunderson said last week that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., also supports it.

The merger bill is likely to be introduced later this month.

Democratic Defense

Democrats, for their part, said the Education Department should not become a victim of the government-reduction fever that accompanied the Republican ascension to power after the 1994 Congressional elections.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Ohio, argued that the federal government has taken a national leadership role in education for more than a century.

He cited the Morrill Act, which created the land-grant-university system in the late 1800's, as an example of federal leadership that did not lead to federal control.

"Let us not remove from the calculus the role that all of us have to play in developing an education system that is integrated," Mr. Sawyer said.

Wayne Riddle, an education-finance specialist at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said a C.R.S. study found that while there has been more visible federal involvement in education-policy debates since the Education Department was created in 1979, the "relative federal financial role has actually declined substantially since that time."

"On the whole," Mr. Riddle said, "there is more evidence of an enlarged state role than of increased federal influence over education policy."

At the press-club forum, Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin and Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, argued for the continued presence of the federal Education Department.

The department, Ms. Kunin said, is being unfairly tagged as a bureaucratic nightmare for state and local officials when it is actually attempting to become a partner in the school-reform movement.

She noted that the state application for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act--the Clinton Administration's initiative to help finance state and local reform efforts tied to new systems of standards and assessments--was only a handful of pages in length, while the application California required of its districts to receive funding under that program amounted to 80 pages.

'Creating Ogres'

Critics, she said, are "creating ogres that do not exist."

But opponents of a federal department argued that the department--and its Goals 2000 strategy--have become synonymous with increased federal control over education.

"Rightly or wrongly," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., many parents, particularly religious conservatives, "feel threatened" by the department.

Roberts T. Jones, a former Bush Administration official who is the executive vice president of the National Alliance of Business, agreed with Deputy Secretary Kunin that many of those concerns are actually prompted by policies and curricula set by state education agencies.

While maintaining that a federal education agency is not a necessity, Mr. Jones urged educators and policymakers to shift the focus of debate from the need for the Education Department. Instead, he said, the debate ought to focus on how best to maintain momentum toward improving education through high standards.

"We must maintain a national focus on [that] issue," Mr. Jones said. "[But] we must not confuse the issue of federal structural roles ... with this issue of educational achievement."

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