Federal File

November 13, 2002 1 min read

Change of Heart?

Several members of the Senate’s incoming freshman class haven’t always been exactly enamored with the Department of Education.

Republicans Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Jim Talent of Missouri joined 118 other House members in 1995 to co-sponsor HR 1883, the proposed Back to Basics Education Reform Act.

That bill would have abolished the Education Department.

In addition, Sen.-elect Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who ran the agency under the first President Bush, testified that same year before a House committee and urged Congress to eliminate the department.

Needless to say, the federal agency is still hanging around (and its budget has more than doubled since then). And that abolitionist stance is no longer in vogue with Republicans.

Not surprisingly, none of the incoming senators still talks about saying “au revoir” to the department, which became a Cabinet-level agency in 1980.

Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Graham voted for the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which embraces a robust role for the federal government—and the Education Department—in the nation’s schools. Mr. Alexander has said he would have voted for the bill, too.

A spokesman for Mr. Talent said he also would have voted “aye” if he hadn’t left Congress two years ago.

Asked whether Mr. Talent has had a change of heart about the department, the spokesman, Rich Chrismer, said the Missouri Republican never really had the agency in his gun sights.

“He’s never supported abolishing the Department of Education,” Mr. Chrismer said. “What he does support is taking money away from bureaucracies and sending [it] directly to the classroom.”

Mr. Chrismer noted that Sen.-elect Talent never actually voted to abolish the department. He simply co-sponsored a bill, which never made it to the House floor, that would have done so.

“You co-sponsor legislation in order to start a discourse about how you’re going to approach certain priorities,” he said.

In any case, that co-sponsorship didn’t seem to hurt Mr. Talent this fall, despite a political ad by the Missouri Democratic Party during the campaign that highlighted that move. On Nov. 5, with just under 50 percent of the vote, he defeated Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan and two minor-party contenders.

—Erik W. Robelen

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week