The Decision Memorandum to the President From the Task Force on the Education Department

November 16, 1981 12 min read
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[The following is the text of a memorandum prepared by a task force of Reagan Administration officials charged with developing a proposal to abolish the Education Department. The document was prepared for discussion at a meeting of President Reagan and several Cabinet members on Tuesday, Nov. 10, but the meeting was rescheduled for Friday, Nov. 13, because of a timing conflict with a Presidential news conference.]


Material for Reviewby the CabinetCouncil on HumanResourcesTuesday, November 10, 1981


The genius of American education is defined by local and popular control, diversity, open access, and pragmatic adaptation to problems. These principles, to which the American people are deeply attached, have served our country well. Nonetheless, the Federal Government, concerned about the Nation’s research capabilities, the lack of equal educational opportunities and for other reasons, intruded into the educational arena. While this imposition started slowly with the providing of aid and assistance and a distant involvement in curriculum, it soon grew into the intrusiveness of establishing educational requirements and supplanting local priorities. The establishment of the Department of Education in 1980 marked the zenith of the intrusiveness.

The Federal Government’s role in education should be limited. It should recognize that education begins in the home and that even state and local officials exist only to help families fulfill their responsibility to provide for the education of their children; that excellence demands competition and, while we have an obligation to help those that fall behind, without a race there is no winner; and that diversity is absolutely essential to the American way of life and is one of our strengths.

The issue is how do we achieve this nonintrusive role for the Federal Government in education and fulfill the President’s pledge to dismantle the Department of Education.


The two most viable options for abolishing the Department of Education are to:

establish a National Education Foundation to include selected school-based programs or

disperse all functions, programs and personnel to other Departments and Agencies.

Two other options are possible, but they have been dropped from consideration by Secretary Bell, OMB [Office of Management and Budget], and others. They are to merge the Department of Education functions with the Department of Health and Human Services or create an independent line agency to house the education functions.


Legislation would be proposed to abolish the Department and replace it with a sub-Cabinet entity to be called the National Education Foundation (or a similar name). The responsibilities assigned to the Foundation would involve school-based programs and assistance. The Foundation would administer the following:

Block grants for state and local education agencies.

Student grants and loans.

Support for equal educational opportunity (compensatory) programs.

A core of continuing information, statistical, and research services for education.

One of the Foundation’s major responsibilities would be to identify programs that are more properly the responsibility of state and local governments. The remaining programs would be dispersed to other Federal agencies or terminated.

The Foundation would have a head appointed by the President and responsible directly to him. The Foundation would also have a nongoverning board, appointed by the President, and limited by statute to an advisory capacity.


The advantages of the Foundation are:

Fulfills the President’s commitment to abolish the Department of Education.

Makes clear that the Federal role is support and assistance, not enforcement and intrusion in state and local affairs.

Provides a central unit to administer existing statutes until they are changed and which is flexible enough to implement future policy changes and contraction of functions.

Maintains strong direction and coordination for Administration initiatives to reform Federal involvement in education through a Presidentially appointed agency head directly accountable to the President.

Is easy to implement imposing minimum costs in terms of dollars, program disruptions, and burdens to other departments.

May be an acceptable alternative for 21 Senators (6 R., 15 D.) and 176 Representatives (32R., 144 D.) up for re-election this year who voted to establish the Department.

Provides a potentially acceptable alternative for other committee leaders and Members of Congress who voted for the Department.

Will meet less resistance from education profession and interest groups than the other options.

Makes transfer of selected programs to other agencies possible where there is a compelling case for doing so without damaging the underlying concept of having a non-Cabinet successor to the Department.

The disadvantages of the Foundation are:

It would continue a centralized Federal presence in the education field with potential for future expansion by statute.

Critics of the Department, including conservative legislators, might claim the Department has not really been eliminated only changed in name and dropped from Cabinet status.

A legislative proposal to create a Foundation with an advisory board, rather than a governing board, risks an amendment which would substitute a governing board with members whose term of office extend beyond that of the President.


Legislation would be proposed to abolish the department and transfer its functions to other Federal departments and agencies. There would no longer be a major Federal agency whose central purpose is education.


The advantages of the dispersal option are:

Dismantles the Department completely.

Emphasizes that the Federal role is in the service educational institutions can provide in support of other Federal purposes.

Facilitates coordination of education programs with other government programs providing related benefits for similar populations or purposes.

The disadvantages of the dispersal option are:

It is more difficult to enact than other options because it would arouse the most intense opposition by education interests and their supporters in Congress.

Results in no Presidential appointee to continue and lead the Administration’s initiative of reducing the Federal intrusion into education or to oversee the interpretation, application and progressive reduction of existing regulatory and enforcement activities.

Results in the absence of coherent and politically responsive leadership for the dispersed education functions and would enhance the ability of special interest groups to influence decisions and pursue their goals at lower levels of decision-making.

Would be more difficult to defend because so many segments of the Federal structure, and their related interests, would be involved.

Entails substantially more disruption and transition costs once enacted because of the transfer of associated personnel and other resources to new locations.


The merger of the Department of Education with the Department of Health and Human Services was dropped because a merger would diminish momentum toward streamlining the education functions; result in a large department with a broad span of Secretarial control encompassing many programs, issues, and congressional committee relationships competing for the Secretary’s attention; increase layers of organization and perhaps confuse lines of authority and communication; prejudge the central mission of the education programs skewing budgets toward the mission of the receiving department and making coordination with agencies having other missions more difficut; create a very large and heterogeneous department confronting a wide range of highly controversial issues; and mix large entitlement programs including much of the income security net, with smaller programs supporting human development.

The creation of an independent education agency was dropped because it would signify that the Federal Government will continue to pursue its own objectives in education rather than become less intrusive. This option could be attacked as a no-real change option.


The Foundation option is a more rational course to follow than the dispersal option. It is more viable in political terms because the amount and intensity of opposition will be less. It is more practical in terms of operational considerations, due to a relatively minor amount of disruption.

A majority of present incumbents in both Houses, including Chairmen Brooks and Roth of the House and Senate committees that will have jurisdiction, voted to establish the Department. They will be in a far less difficult position if they are asked to support a Foundation as opposed to total dispersal.

A Foundation, whose head would be accountable to the President, would be an effective vehicle for continuing to move to a more restricted Federal role. Achieving this goal will require knowledgeable and disciplined direction over the bureaucracy by a key appointed official who operates with direct support from the White House. These requisites would be very difficult to obtain under dispersal.


If the Foundation option is selected, there is a second set of decisions to be made regarding which responsibilities should be assigned to the Foundation and which should be transferred or terminated. [The accompanying chart] compares the responsibilities of a Foundation with the Department of Education.

Responsibilities to beassigned to the Foundation

The responsibilities assigned to the Foundation would include school-based programs and financial assistance to students. They are:

Enacted block grants: These programs include 42 categorical assistance programs now blocked in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981.

Proposed block grants and consolidations: These programs enhance vocational skills and basic skills for secondary students and adults; provide special education for handicapped persons; support recruitment, counseling and other special services for disadvantaged college students; and support institutionally administered college work study assistance, loans and grants for postsecondary students.

Compensatory programs: These include compensatory education assistance for disadvantaged students and children with limited English speaking ability.

“Developing colleges": This provides Federal funding for historically Black and other institutions struggling to survive.

Student assistance: These programs provide grants to needy postsecondary students and loans to students and their parents to help meet postsecondary costs.

Statistical and research functions: These programs support research on educational problems, collection of educational data, and improvement of postsecondary programs and services.

Civil rights activities: These activities involve race, sex, age and language discrimination statutes.

Responsibilities tobe Transferred

The following responsibilities should be transferred to the indicated departments or agencies:

Rehabilitation services to Health and Human Services since in 28 states rehabilitation agencies are separate from education agencies, the programs are categorical in nature similar to social services in HHS, and the services are provided on an individual basis involving strong counseling functions.

International education to International Communications Agency since the rationale for the program is long-term foreign relations.

Special institutions, e.g., American Printing House for the Blind; National Technical Institute for the Deaf; and Gallaudet College, to Health and Human Services since they are non-Federal agencies providing services for handicapped individuals, the Federal support is provided as a permanent subsidy, they were located in HEW [Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] prior to the creation of the Department of Education, and are associated with other assistance for handicapped individual’s programs.

Impact aid

for operation payments and LEAs [local educational agencies’] construction to Treasury since the payments are based on a formula for Federal aid in lieu of taxes and the transfer is similar, in type, to general revenue sharing, also administered by Treasury.

for construction on Federal lands, to DOD[Department of Defense] since payments are almost entirely for construction of schools serving military facilities.

for construction on Indian lands, to Interior since payments are entirely for construction of schools on Indian lands and Interior administers other assistance to schools on Indian lands.

College housing and higher education facilities to Treasury since these are minor fund transfers involving repayments and continuing subsidies for previous awards. There is no new assistance.

Minority institutions science improvement program to the National Science Foundation since it can be administered in conjunction with other science education efforts.

Indian Education to Interior would complement BIA programs for education of Indians living on or near reservations with programs now in ED serving urban Indians. Would be a move toward consolidation of Indian programs Government-wide.

Responsibilities tobe Terminated

The following programs would be eliminated:

Veterans Cost of Instruction

Aid to Land Grant Colleges

Institute of Museum Services

Ellender Fellowships

Educational Outreach

Public Service Grants and Fellowships

Mining Fellowships

Wayne Morse Chair for Law and Politics

College Library Resources

Telecommunications Demonstrations

Law School Clinical Experience

The above programs are zero funded in the Administration’s revised 1982 budget and the budget outlook does not suggest any changes in these decisions for the foreseeable future. Termination would clear these authorities from the statutes.

National Academy of Peace and Conflict Resolution

The above program is already terminated.

State Student Incentive Grants

The above program is an ineffective incentive for additional state student aid.

Library Support [Programs]

The above programs provide support primarily for public libraries that are a responsibility of general-purpose state and local governments. Public library expenditures were well over $1 billion in 1974; Federal assistance is not a major factor in funding.

Fellowships for Graduate and Professional Training and Legal Training for the Disadvantaged

The above programs provide graduate level support of professional training for minorities (in engineering, physical and life sciences, as well as law). Graduate support is a low priority; self-financing is traditional at that level.

Cooperative Education

The above program should be supported by joint university-business agreements, rather than Federal grants.

Migrant High School Equivalency and Migrant College Assistance

Responsibilities for the above programs should be met by States through use of Title I migrant funds or through regular student assistance program, rather than separate categorical grants.


[The following section provides space for Cabinet members to write their recommendations for the fate of the Education Department.]


Foundation (Department of


and OMB recommendation)|


2. Responsibilities

to be




3. Responsibilities

to be Terminated:



A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 1981 edition of Education Week as The Decision Memorandum to the President From the Task Force on the Education Department


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