Attacks on E.D. Show Hostility to Public Schools, Democrats Charge
After defending the Education Department against Republican assaults for months, House Democrats took the offensive at the most recent Congressional hearing on the issue.
Democrats charged last month that Christian conservatives and the right wing of the Republican party are driving the push to get rid of the department. And those attacks on the Education Department, Democrats contended, symbolize conservatives' hostility toward public education.
"I am outraged by the increasing rancor of the religious right with respect to public education," said Rep. William D. Clay, D-Mo., the ranking Democrat on the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee.
Mr. Clay cited quotations from the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Rev. Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, that Mr. Clay said express animosity toward public schools.
Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., joined in. "The far right [has] attempted to impose curriculum, values, structure, and religion on our local schools and [now] they want the Congress of the United States to do it," Mr. Williams said.
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley also appeared bothered by the nature of the attacks. He used his testimony to dispel what he called "misinformation and myths" about the department and the federal role in education.
"The debate over education and this department is becoming much too negative. There is too much intensity to the discussion," Secretary Riley said. "This department seems to get blamed for everything from the disappearance of Amelia Earhart to the death of Elvis to last year's baseball strike."
Most Republicans refused to get pulled into a discussion about Christian conservatives.
"I did not plan to have a hearing where Jerry Falwell got all the attention," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the education committee. "My interest in all of this is to make sure that with fewer resources we do better."
Only Rep. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., addressed the Democrats' and Secretary Riley's comments directly.
"I hope you don't equate the conviction many of us have about eliminating the Department of Education as an attack on public education," Mr. Hutchinson said.
Republicans urged Mr. Riley to work with them to reduce the size of the government. With or without his cooperation, they said, the Education Department's size and mission will change.
"Whether we like it or not, we are looking at dramatic reductions in [education spending] over the next seven years," said Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., a moderate who has proposed merging the Education Department, the Labor Department, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (See Education Week, 2/22/95.)
"What I am afraid of is that we will merge these departments by accident," he said.
Mr. Gunderson's plan, which has not yet been introduced, is certain to seem modest compared with HR 1883. That bill, drafted by a number of House freshmen, would eliminate the department and most of its programs, replacing them with block grants to states of $9 billion for elementary and secondary education and $2 billion for higher education. (See Education Week, 5/31/95.)
A General Accounting Office study released late last month estimated that the merger proposal would save $1.65 billion over five years in administrative costs, defined as "compensation, benefits, and other related expenses associated with managing the proposed department, administering grants programs, providing safety and health inspections, and overseeing employee pensions."
The proposed Department of Education and Employment would initially have a budget of about $71 billion, more than 25,600 full-time positions, and about 1,200 field offices, the report said--and some 4,200 to 4,600 positions would have to be cut to achieve the projected administrative savings.
The study did not estimate savings that would be realized by eliminating programs under the merger plan, which a spokesman for Mr. Gunderson noted, adding that it would also reduce the need for federal buildings.
Mr. Gunderson has said his plan would save $21 billion over five years.
The G.A.O. did not evaluate the merits of the merger plan.