Education Commentary

Should We Put The ‘E’ Back in H.E.W.?

By Christopher T. Cross — February 09, 1994 5 min read
  • Give the federal government a single agency through which to focus its efforts to better serve children and families.

One might ask: Should we undo what hath been wrought and put the “E” back in H.E.W., the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, now H.H.S.?

While my initial reaction when people raise this question is to say yes, since I spent two years in the late 1970’s working against the breakup of H.E.W., a more reflective answer would be that we need to reinvent the entire federal-agency structure to reflect the realities of the 1990’s. In truth, the Education Department was obsolete even before Jimmy Carter nominated its first Secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler.

Simply putting education back into an agency that spans the entire gamut of health and social-service issues would not be the right solution. The strains placed upon our education

See Mark D. Musick’s essay, “Why NAEP Needs an Independent Governing Board,’' on page 42.

system by the societal change of the past several decades demand that we rethink the entire issue of education: where it occurs, what other services support children and families, and how we make a reality of the concept of lifelong learning.

Each week, several meeting announcements, papers, and articles which cross my desk deal with these issues. The Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership has created the Intergovernmental-Interagency Policy Exchange, the Clinton budget for fiscal 1994 contains money for youth-apprenticeship programs equally divided between the Education and Labor departments, and countless reports and commissions, from the recent National Commission on Children to the several reports by Ernest L. Boyer and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, all raise the issue of the interconnectedness of education with other social issues.

Why are these issues being raised in such volume now, and why were they not raised in the 1970’s?

One reason is demographics. Our schools are facing severe challenges from an influx of both legal and illegal immigrants, many of whom are settling in areas far from the traditional ports of entry. And, these new Americans are arriving not from a few nations in Europe with whom we shared a common culture, but from the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and Africa. It is not unusual for a school principal to have 12- or 13-year-olds appear to enter the 6th or 7th grade never having attended school in their native lands.

Today, we are also about the business of reinventing education. With every new concept, from the New American Schools of George Bush to Christopher Whittle’s effort to organize a chain of private for-profit schools, to the push by Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich and others for high school programs that may serve as the first stage in apprenticeship, we are creating new models and new alliances in support of education. And, in nearly every case, we are discovering that the 19th-century model of education ill serves us for the needs of today.

So, one might ask, what difference does it make how the federal government is organized? After all, education is constitutionally a state issue.

The reality is that states and localities mirror both the organizational structure and the program structure of the federal government. In addition, a large portion of the staffs in state agencies are paid with federal funds and consider themselves extensions of the federal structure. In state education agencies, typically between one-third and two-thirds of the staff are paid with federal funds.

So, what might a Bill Clinton do that is a creative solution?

Well, first of all he could call this new agency something like the U.S. Department of Education, Families, and Careers. He could bring into that agency the office of human-development services in H.H.S. That office includes programs like Head Start, Child Development Associates scholarships, dependent-care planning and development, child-welfare services, aid to families with dependent children, and work activities and child care, including the JOBS program.

Next, he should look at the Employment and Training Administration in the U.S. Labor Department and at the very least include the office of work-based learning, the Job Corps, and the Job Training Partnership Act program.

The National Science Foundation might contribute the education and human-resource directorate, which runs the gamut from precollegiate teacher preparation through the support of informal science-education programs in museums, to programs to improve curricula and increase minority representation in the sciences.

Finally, he might also consider for transfer education programs of the National Endowment for the Arts and some major components of the National Endowment for the Humanities, especially those programs providing assistance to teachers and those activities focused on school and college curricula.

The result would be an agency which would meet the needs identified in a 1991 report of the Committee on Economic Development, entitled “The Unfinished Agenda: A New Vision for Child Development and Education.’' That report noted that “policy leaders have begun to subscribe to a broader view of human-resource development. They are starting to view early-childhood development, education, social services, job training, and economic development as parts of an interdependent system of human investments, rather than as independent enterprises.’'

Such a reorganization would also:

  • Strengthen the commitment of the federal government to the national education goals.
  • Give the federal government a single agency through which to focus its efforts to better serve children and families.
  • Encourage a reorganization of the hopelessly outdated Congressional-committee structure and persuade (one would hope) both special interests and the entrenched bureaucracies to confront a new set of principles and realities.
  • Force the rationalization of the plethora of rules, regulations, definitions, and forms that now confront a family requiring services and schools and colleges in their dealings with the federal government.

Now, in reality, in the old H.E.W., almost no collaboration occurred between the old Office of Education and other agencies within the department because the issues that consumed the higher echelons of the department were almost inevitably the big\ticket, politically divisive issues of Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and welfare reform. Never have we had at the national level a single agency with a focus on education and training, families, and human development.

Under this new plan, issues such as the transition from day care to school and from school to work would be considered and addressed in a coherent fashion. In the end, children and families would be better served. After all, isn’t that what it is all about?

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 1994 edition of Education Week as Should We Put The ‘E’ Back in H.E.W.?