Far-Reaching Shift in Federal Role Urged by Bell

September 07, 1981 12 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This month, Editorial Projects in Education launches Education Week, a national tabloid newspaper designed for the men and women who have administrative responsibilities in the nation’s public and private secondary and elementary school systems. Volume I, Number 1 of Education Week carries an exclusive copyrighted story about Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell’s confidential memorandum to President Reagan on the future of the federal role in American education. Because of their implications for higher education’s leaders, the article and accompanying excerpts from the Bell memorandum are reprinted in this special issue of The EPE 15-Minute Report.

Details of a tightly-guarded memorandum on the future of the U.S. Education Department—sent to the White House early last month by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell—offer a precise blueprint not only for downgrading the year-old department to the status of a sub-Cabinet-level foundation, but also for engineering a fundamental realignment of the federal role in American education.

Learn more about Editorial Projects in Education, the non-profit publisher of Education Week, Teacher Magazine, and Agent K-12.

The 91-page memorandum, a copy of which has been obtained by Education Week, asserts that “the Federal Government does not have responsibility for education.”

That responsibility, it repeatedly states, is delegated to states and localities by the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Arguing that the federal role in education in fact grew as a “means’’ to such goals as national security and the elimination of inequality rather than as a commitment to education itself, the memorandum proposes a large-scale shift of regulatory, programmatic, and fiscal responsibilities in education back to states and localities.

That shift is needed, the document states, to reverse what it describes as a 25-year “sea change in the relations of government and education” that has resulted in “an overly intrusive federal role.”

The potential explosiveness of the proposals contained in the document—for dismantling the Education Department and its activities, for reorienting federal education philosophy, and for developing a new agency appropriate for administering “reduced funding levels for Department programs"—was taken into account by the authors.

Coordinated by Deputy Undersecretary for Planning and Budget Gary Jones, the memorandum task force of seven high-ranking Education Department officials reporting to Secretary Bell included in the document a legislative-relations and media strategy designed, over the next several months, to convince officials, legislators, and the public of the desirability of what the memorandum calls “a radical shift from the status quo.”

No plan was suggested for making public Secretary Bell’s memorandum itself. Unnamed Administration sources revealed its broad outlines to The Washington Post on August 6, shortly after it was sent to the White House. And aides to Mr. Bell had been circulating among Washington education lobbyists information regarding the Secretary’s “options” for several months, apparently to determine whether education groups would support the foundation proposal.

At the White House, the document was to be analyzed by staff members before being delivered to President Reagan. Secretary Bell is scheduled to discuss its proposals with other Cabinet members this month, and they will make further recommendations to the President, according to a White House official.

Meanwhile, the Education Secretary and top aides, according to the memorandum, are to be briefing key agency officials and members of Congress to “develop and gather support for the Administration’s decision.”

That decision, as outlined in the memorandum includes a number of proposals likely to be controversial, such as moving the Pell Grants and guaranteed student loan programs to the Treasury; moving the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights into the Justice Department; and folding into the new foundation such other agencies as the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Science Foundation.

All such moves, the document emphasizes, would have as their purpose remolding the federal role in education into “a structure intentionally created to render financial support, conduct research, and provide other forms of assistance, but to avoid direction and control.”

As first steps in this historic rejection of the expansion of federal education dollars—from $4 billion in 1965 to $25 billion in 1980—and regulations, the Bell memorandum recommends:

  • Enacting by next March legislation to turn the Education Department into a foundation that would serve largely to administer block grants, collect information, and conduct research. Most of the current Department’s activities could then be “transferred, terminated or modified as new Administration policies are implemented.”
  • Transferring four Department functions to other federal agencies: guaranteed student loans and Pell Grants to the Treasury Department; veterans’ cost of instruction allowances to the Veterans Administration; Institute of Museum Services to the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Indian Education programs to the Department of the Interior.
  • Dissolving the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights and either moving its functions to the Justice Department, or granting civil-rights enforcement responsibility to individual federal education-program offices. In either case, Mr. Bell would conduct “a review of basic education and civil-rights statutes and...regulations” with a view toward “making local and state resolution of complaints the first recourse.”

The government, the memorandum says, “should assume a cooperative, rather than a coercive, posture. The threat of terminating Federal funding ... is generally too drastic a response to problems in local school districts.”

Replacing large-scale federal funding for education, which the memorandum says “is one of the factors responsible for the present imbalance of the federal budget,” with “encouragement to the states to shoulder a greater share of the responsibility for delivering educational services.” (Mr. Bell this year recommended a 27-percent cut in federal education spending.)

These actions, the document states, will help bring the Education Department into line with President Reagan’s goals of:

  • Greater use of the private sector, for example in student loan collections and in Administration-supported incentives such as tuition tax credits;
  • More flexibility for states and localities in decision-making through block grants, reduction of regulations and relaxing of other federal requirements;
  • Overall reduction in funding levels, number of separate programs, number of federal staff, points of federal-employee review and comment, and
  • A more cooperative attitude in working toward civil-rights objectives, less ready to withdraw or threaten to withdraw federal funds.”

According to the Bell memorandum, the existing structure must be dismantled because the cabinet-level Education Department; (1) exercises a degree of federal control over educational institutions that is inappropriate; and (2) implies acceptance of a federal responsibility that is not condoned by the Constitution or custom and that is unrealistic under foreseeable budgetary constraints.

“The 10th Amendment, reserving to the states and the people powers not delegated to federal government by the Constitution, has not been followed—especially in education—strictly and wisely by Congress and the courts,” the memorandum states.

“We have seen special-interest groups successfully shifting power, in the decade of the 1970’s, away from teacher, parent and school board, and toward organized lobby, civil servant, committed elected officials and convinced judges,” it continues. “Local education authorities are now caught between state government, federal government, and legislative and judicial presences in the classroom, and basic decisions are now made in arenas farther and farther away from the classroom.”

That rationale is illustrated with quotes from James Madison’s discussions of the potential conflict between levels of government in The Federalist Papers, which are frequently cited as the source of the Reagan Administration’s “New Federalism":

“‘The ultimate authority ... resides in the people alone .... It will not depend merely on the comparative ambition or address of the different governments whether either, or which of them, will be able to enlarge its sphere of jurisdiction at the expense of the other.”’

The memorandum argues that not only is education not a federal function, it is also not a federal purpose: “The federal interest is not in specific educational outcomes,” it reasons. “Cabinet departments should reflect major Constitutional responsibilities of the President who must concentrate on issues for which the Constitution holds him responsible....Education, as represented by the Department of Education, is too narrow in scope, and too strongly influenced by teachers and institutional representatives to form the basis for a cabinet-level agency.”

What functions should the federal government serve? Its involvement, according to the document, “should center on those activities which nourish the quality of education in harmony with our rich diversity of individual talents and our heritage of local responsibility.” It lists “six broad avenues...which together define the proper role of the federal government in education.” They are:

  • Data gathering and analysis. The information gathered “needs to be directed to school boards, teachers and students, and not used primarily as the basis to justify expanded federal legislation and regulation.’'

  • Support to research. Because “increasing concern has arisen in recent years over the capability of universities to support research,” federal support “must be maintained.”

  • Assisting students with limited finances. “Financial aid to higher education should be concentrated on aid to students rather than aid to institutions for purposes of supporting education programs.”

  • Advancing equality of opportunity. “A line can and must be drawn between the principle of equal treatment, and the specification of details of school administration, rule, regulation and curriculum.... The threat of terminating federal funding, for states and localities in noncompliance with federal statutes, is generally too drastic a response.”

  • Research and demonstration for improvement in education. “The federal government’s role should be to help expand knowledge of effective practice. It will be up to local school districts and states to apply this research and the lessons from demonstrations.”

  • Strengthening and increasing local and state capacities in selected and limited areas of educational need. “Narrow categorical programs...cannot accommodate the variety of conditions found in different states and communities.” Funds should be allocated “to increase capacities of state, local, and private educational block grants that give wide latitude.”

The memorandum asserts that “the critical signal that the overly intrusive federal role has been checked” is the dismantling of the cabinet-level Education Department.

A National Education Foundation, based on the model of the current National Science Foundation, by contrast, “would be perceived as a supportive rather than regulatory or enforcement-oriented organization.” It would be governed by a board of directors that would “assure that its activities do not intrude on the responsibilities of public and private educational organizations. It would not, of course, in any way be a national school board making national education policy,” the memorandum states.

Since Secretary Bell’s preference for turning his Department into a foundation was publicized several weeks ago, both he and Undersecretary William Clohan have said that the foundation is one of several options the President may choose for dismantling the Education Department. Other proposed structures, analyzed in the memo, include: creating an independent agency; merging education with the Departments of Labor, Commerce, or Health and Human Services; and dispersing education functions among several federal agencies.

Mr. Bell rejects the independent agency because its creation would imply a “federal mission [that is] contrary to the Administration’s purposes to turn more decision making back to states.”

Merging education with another federal agency would be too costly and would “diminish momentum toward streamlining the education functions,” the Bell document says. And dispersing education functions throughout other agencies would be “subject to the claim...that the importance of education is not recognized.”

Although “each one of the options would fulfill the President’s commitment to abolish the Department,” according to the memorandum, an education foundation by “its very name conveys the supportive, non-coercive nature of the federal role the Administration seeks.”

An attractive feature of such an arrangement, the memorandum suggests, “would be the ability of the foundation to adjust to changes as new Administration policies are implemented.”

A foundation should be structured, it says, so that it can accommodate such future proposals as: “additional block grants and program consolidations; program mergers; transfers to other agencies; and reduction in staff functions through changes in regulations, monitoring and review.”

Should Congress fail to pass the reorganization legislation, the memorandum notes that the law that created the Education Department would permit Secretary Bell to initiate radical changes nonetheless. It lists several education program offices that the Secretary of Education “may alter, consolidate, or discontinue...or reallocate any of their functions” under the authority of the Department of Education Organization Act of 1979.

As spelled out in Section 413(b) of that law, these are: bilingual education, education and training programs for the handicapped, Indian education, nonpublic education, National Institute of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, community-college assistance, veterans’ cost of instruction, libraries and learning resources, career education, gifted and talented programs, guidance and counseling programs, consumer education, environmental education, and the Teacher Corps. (The latter six programs are among those already consolidated into block grants.)

Other “units,” according to the document, may not be abolished or consolidated, except through statutory amendment.

Language authorizing the dismantling of other programs is likely to be included in an Education Department reorganization bill, which the document suggests President Reagan introduce in January, accompanied by a major speech.

The legislation would be in line with Mr. Reagan’s campaign promise, which was subsequently incorporated in the G.O.P. party platform, to abolish the Education Department.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1981 edition of Education Week as Far-Reaching Shift in Federal Role Urged by Bell


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: June 12, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 29, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 8, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read