Text and Recommendations From Memorandum on Restructuring the Federal Role in Education

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Following are excerpts of a memorandum recommending changes in both the structure and philosophy of the federal involvement in American education. The document was sent last month by Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell to the White House for review and reactions.

The Federal Government's Role in Education

How can we define and limit the role of Federal Government so the resourcefulness of American education survives, and tasks properly shared with Federal Government are undertaken so as to enhance the reach and effectiveness of basic principles?

When James Madison wrote about the roles of Federal and State government, he concluded that if "the people should in future become more partial to the Federal than to the State governments, the change can only result from such manifest and irresistible proofs of a better administration as will overcome all their antecedent propensities."

Is this the case? Are "manifest and irresistible proofs of a better administration" of the nation's schools Federal Government self-evident?

Or is it rather that, on the basis of demonstration of clear national needs that quite legitimately required the assistance of Federal Government, and with well-intentioned help from Congress and the Courts, 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?

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.

A prudent role for the Federal Government in education 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.

Decisions on provision of Federal funds should be contingent on the following criteria;

1. Seriousness of the deficiency for those we wish to educate;

2. Determination of State and local inability to take action;

3. Probability that the deficiency could indeed be made up through expenditure of Federal funds, and

4. Conclusion that the national interest demands allocation of scarce resources for this purpose when need has been weighed against other demands for Federal funds.

And, since priorities change over time, no single set of criteria should be cast in concrete.

This can be done--and done in a relatively uncomplicated fashion--by passage down six broad avenues, which together define the proper role of the Federal Government in education.

1: Data-Gathering and Analysis

A center for gathering data on American education is needed to discern trends and point out gaps to educators, parents, and students.

In the early 1950's the Council of Chief State School Officers called for uniform reporting categories for all State and territorial school systems; data collected at the Federal level would compare education both within and across States and territories. This call resulted in publication ofCommon Core of State Educational Information in 1953. This publication has been updated annually since then and provides a basis for nationally comparative statistics on education.

Data gathering and analysis should be seen as serving schools and localities, not government agencies--although inevitably government agencies will make use of such resources. Information needs to be directed to school boards, teachers and students, and not used primarily as the basis to justify expanded Federal legislation and regulation, as has happened in the past.

2: Support to Research

Both basic and applied research support has long been provided by Federal Departments and agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Education....Support for basic and applied research has been a key component of the Federal role since World War II; it must be maintained.

3: Assisting Students with Limited Finances

On the Federal level, financial aid to higher education should be concentrated on aid to students rather than aid to institutions for purposes of supporting education programs.

Federal financial assistance should help students who will contribute to our material and spiritual welfare, and whose financial condition is such that they need aid in addition to work in order to be able to attend college. Financial assistance should flow downhill; the poor should not be taxed to support the rich.

Student aid, with or without linkage to other national objectives, is a part of the Federal role in education.

4: Advancing Equalityof Opportunity

There are those whose access to education is limited not only by funds, but by other conditions: race, language, sex, handicap. Segregation in education could not have been overcome without Federal intervention--judicial, executive, and legislative. But it is under our mandate to advance equality of opportunity for groups that have faced discrimination that we have seen the most extensive intrusion of Federal Government into the classroom. Most Americans applauded when the Federal Government required the opening up of every level of education on equal terms to blacks; most of them recoiled when this was followed by requirements that every institution mirror population distribution, or that admission to selective programs be governed by precise racial quotas. No institution should have to meet such tests to demonstrate it does not discriminate.

In moving from ensuring equality of opportunity for racial minorities to ensuring it for those with limited English capacity, or handicap, or for both sexes, other problems have arisen; language capacity, handicap, and sex may all affect the type of education that is necessary, possible, or desirable. Thus there is an inevitable tension between decreeing equality of opportunity on the one hand, and specifying the conditions that concretely mean equality of opportunity on the other.

Should those with limited English capacities be educated primarily in English, or in their native tongue? Must institutions be denied the right to have dress codes, or housing requirements, or choirs, that differentiate between students by sex? How much must be spent on making classrooms available to the physically handicapped, or on educational aids for the blind and deaf? All these issues--ranging from the grave to the ridiculous--have come under Federal regulation as we tried to pursue equality of educational 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 into which the Federal Government has blundered, or been pushed, by unwise legislation, judicial decree, and interest group pressures.

Federal courts have also become deeply involved in educational practice and policy. At times, the basis for litigation is the Constitution; more frequently it is Federal statutes, and companion rules and regulations, that elicit legal action. In some instances, action is initiated to test how far courts will go in interpreting Federal statutes and regulations, with results that sometimes go well beyond the intent of either Executive or Legislative branch. Federal Government needs to recognize and accept the vast diversity and tradition of autonomy in America's educational system.

A clear and fair review of basic education and civil rights statutes, and the resultant interpretive regulations, is essential. This review needs to be conducted with a view both to eliminating unwarranted and unnecessary intrusion by Federal Government, and to clarifying limits to which legal and administrative interpretation of statutes and regulations extend. Regulations should focus on objectives to be achieved, rather than on detailed prescription of ways to achieve them.

It is unfortunately true that until Congress and the Courts respond more fully to the principle of State and local autonomy in education, many unnecessarily intrusive Federal requirements will remain. Inevitably, our pursuit of equality of educational opportunity demands a Federal role of considerable magnitude. But in exercising this role, Federal Government should assume a cooperative, rather than a coercive, posture.

The threat of terminating Federal funding, for States and localities in noncompliance with Federal statutes, is generally too drastic a response to problems in local school districts and individual institutions of higher education. Often threatened, this kind of overkill is only rarely imposed. More positive approaches should be explored, such as encouraging States and local education agencies to establish their own complaint procedures for aggrieved recipients of educational services. This would not remove the Federal Government from enforcement of education and civil rights laws, but would make local and State resolution of complaints the first recourse in individual cases, and focus Federal attention on broader patterns of meeting Federal Constitutional and legislative requirements.

Administration of Federal laws aimed at equal opportunity should start with State and local review and thereby minimize immediate Federal intervention.

5: Research and Demonstration for Improvement in Education

American education needs research on finding ways to teach more effectively, and foster quality in an education enterprise that many Americans believe lacks discipline and vigor. Research and demonstration should concentrate on yielding better results for the $200 billion spent each year on education in the United States.

At its peaks, American education is as good as any in the world. Too much of it, however, lies in the valleys where achievement in mathematics and science lags behind that of many advanced nations, and where even minimal skills of reading and computation are often woefully inadequate. We have recently become aware of such facts as: Japan, with half our population, trains as many engineers as the United States; the Soviet Union, with only a slightly larger population, teaches calculus to 20 times as many students as we do; our deficiencies in teaching foreign languages are notorious.

Some of these problems demand research beyond capacities of individual school districts or even States. It is proper that Federal Government should fund research seeking to improve achievement at various levels of the educational system, and for students of varying capacities in reading, arithmetic, computation, science, mathematics, and foreign-language study.

In doing so, Government must steadily be aware of the huge diversity of American education, and our research and demonstration should learn from this diversity. 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.

A research agenda should be developed with guidance from those responsible at State and local levels, and designed to be responsive to needs of practitioners. In addition, Federal Government can assist States and localities to share educational knowledge--and identify effective educational practices--so that each can learn from the mistakes and successes of others. The diversity, even the competition, of our educational systems, lends itself to innovation and improvement."

Support for research and development to improve educational quality needs to be part of the Federal role in education.

6: Strengthening, Increasing Local and State Capacities in Selected, Limited Areas of Educational Need

Many young people have inadequate skills for any productive job, and many adults lack basic education needed to learn--and keep up-to-date--their employment skills. Our nation has continuous needs for training to keep up with changes in our economy. Inadequacy in these types of education undermine our ability to participate effectively as citizens, contribute to family and community life, defend our nation, earn our living, and increase productivity in our economy. This adds to demands on Federal and State social services and welfare programs. Thus, a legitimate interest exists in encouraging and providing limited assistance to State, local, and private bodies to meet certain education needs of Americans, particularly those needs oriented toward improving occupational capacity and overcoming dependency. But how we do this is crucial.

Many past Federal efforts to attack specific deficiencies in education, or to serve special target populations, resulted in disruptive interference with State, local, and private educational entities. Narrow categorical programs have been enacted, leading to an absurd excess of rules and regulations. These provisions cannot accommodate the variety of conditions found in different States and communities, or blend with the wide variety of State laws and financial assistance programs. As a result, they distort State and local priorities, intervene in the choice of curriculum, and place undue burdens on State, local, and private educational institutions.

In those limited circumstances where Federal financial assistance is justified, funds should be allocated in block grants that give wide latitude to harmonizing Federal monies with funds appropriated from State and local sources. State and local responsibility should be recognized. State plans need to be accountable to the State's electorate.

Limited funding to strengthen and increase capacities of State, local, and private educational organizations in certain limited educational areas needs to be a component of the Federal role.


Local, popular control; diversity, to take account of the diversity of our population; open access, expressing our commitment to democracy and opportunity; pragmatic adaptation to changing needs--these define the genius of American education.

A Federal role of substantial size has been created in the past 40 years. For every problem in education, some interest has seen fit to rush to Congress, the Courts, or the Executive, to plead or demand that need be met at the Federal level--just as for every problem in life, some interest has seen fit to rush to the schools, and colleges, and universities, to plead or demand that problem be dealt with in the classroom.

Education cannot deal with all the problems of life, and the Federal Government cannot deal with all the problems of education. Parents, churches, communities, business enterprises, philanthropies, and individual effort are all necessary to deal with the multifarious problems of living, and local and State governments must take the principal role in dealing with the problems of education.

The Tenth 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. Yet the Constitution mentions neither political parties nor trade and union groups, and both have found mediation of sorts--albeit fractious--at the Federal level of government. The Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing that rights of citizenship not be abridged, has and most likely always shall be, a measured counterweight in both intellectual and practical political influence, especially in an endeavor such as education, affecting fully one-third of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy."

A Federal role has been created, and has grown. It has provided key resources for, and created many difficulties for, our local and State levels of government. It must now put its house in order, so that in continuing to provide guidance--and, on necessary occasions, instruction and sanction--to local and State government, it stays within well-defined limits, and does not place obstacles in the way of continued expression of the genius of American education.

[Editor's note: Secretary Bell's memorandum outlines four possible options for modifying the current Education Department, including creating an independent agency, merging education with the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, or Commerce, and dispersing education functions among several federal agencies. The memorandum then offers the rationale for and details of the Secretary's preferred option.]

A National Foundation

This option would create a sub-Cabinet-level Federal foundation initially including most activities in the Department of Education. Foundations in both government and the private sector are organizations created to provide assistance through financial support, studies and other means. They are not perceived as organizations that exercise "line" control and supervision. Thus, by name and nature, a national foundation for education would convey the Government's intent to respect the Tenth Amendment. A foundation would keep together, at least initially, most of the activities now in the Department of Education so that they can be closely coordinated. But it would permit these activities to be transferred, terminated, or modified as new Administration policies are implemented.

The usual example of a foundation in the Federal Government is the National Science Foundation. Largely on the basis of NSF experience, the common understanding is that a foundation would have such attributes as the following:

It is supportive of the best ideas of its grantees and contractors, nurturing rather than "directing" them.

It does not conduct regulatory functions (except for procurement).

It is governed by an appointed board that establishes policy for the agency and also reviews proposed grant awards.

Together these characteristics are largely responsible for the favorable perception that is usually held for foundations. They are expected to be supportive and responsive organizations. "Peer judgment" systems are used extensively in decision-making and there is substantial participation of individuals from "the field" in agency staff positions for one- or two-year assignments after which they return to their home institutions.

The foundation for education would be significantly larger than NSF. Until needed legislation has been passed, it could initially include most of the existing Department functions. But it would have a governing board, as NSF does, to make policies as to operation of the foundation and assure that its activities to 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 foundation would have authority for flexibility in employing experienced and expert individuals from education and management positions for one- or two-year assignments. Through enactment of legislation and Executive actions to change the Federal role, staffing would be reduced significantly in keeping with the objective of limiting Government intrusion and supporting State, local, and institutional efforts.

It would be important that a foundation not have statutory restrictions on its internal organization, so that this could be adjusted as the Federal role is refined. If it is clear that certain activities do not belong in the foundation, they could be spun off to other locations at its creation. For example, consideration might be given to (a) moving the guaranteed student loan and Pell grant programs to Treasury, (b) transferring civil rights enforcement to another agency, (c) placing the Institute for Museum Services with the National Endowment for the Humanities, and (d) placing veterans cost of instruction allowances with VA [the Veterans Administration]. As the Federal role is streamlined, the President should have the power to remove activities from the Foundation or add them. The President's reorganization authority that expired in April 1981 would--if renewed--permit this type of transfer and internal restructuring or consolidation.

Objection could be raised that the foundation was a change in name only from the Department. That would be readily answered. The proposed governing board to oversee foundation activities would be a clearly new instrument for diminishing Federal intrusions. More important, the name is intended to describe the change in Federal behavior in conduct of its education activities. The conversion would be one step in a series of actions to reduce the importance, size, intrusiveness and complexity of the Federal role in education.

Should the Administration want to undertake additional reorganizations for further Government efficiencies, it may wish to consider the possibility of merging other organizations with the foundation described here. Possibilities would include the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Science Foundation.


It is obvious from the discussions [in preceding sections of the memo] of characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of the various options [for dismantling the Education Department] that these choices have differing attributes that make some more attractive than others for the Administration's purposes. Drawing from those options...and the Secretary's judgment as to priority considerations in abolishing the Department, the following objectives for organizing the Federal education programs can be stated:

1.The structure for education must be of less than Cabinet rank. This is the clear commitment of the President. Most Federal support for education is in the form of means toward achievement of other Government objectives and about half of this support is provided outside the Department of Education. It is not possible, even if it were desirable, to place all these Federal education activities in a single agency because most are such integral functions of other agencies that they could not sensibly be removed. But organizational arrangements must deal with each of the different functions now carried out by the Department of Education (until or unless there are changes in those functions). The Department:

--Operates programs of assistance to schools and colleges.

--Administers student assistance programs.

--Provides the chief Government spokesperson for education.

--Serves as a point of information and reporting on the condition of education in the U.S.

--Supports research, development and dissemination of knowledge that will assist schools in answering questions about how to improve services.

--Enforces civil rights laws.

--Supports an Intergovernmental Advisory Committee to assess issues of Federal/state/local and institutional effects.

--Supports the Federal Interagency Committee on Education, the only effort to coordinate Federal education programs across the Government other than OMB and the White House.

2.There must be some identifiable Federal organization that operates education programs. Many of the activities now in ED should remain together in a unit that would be known as the "house of education" in the Government. But, that unit should be one that can change, slim down, combine functions, transfer activities elsewhere and otherwise adjust to the Administration's changes in the Federal education role as they are implemented. It should be a unit that would de-emphasize rule-making and emphasize technical assistance and support. It should permit close articulation between civil rights activities and related program activities. Internal structure of this unit should not be mandated by statute because that would hamper later changes that might be possible as consolidation occurs or as programs are terminated. The President's reorganization authority that expired in April of this year should be renewed so that such changes can be made once the Department is abolished.

3.There must be provision for coordination of Federal education activities across the Government. The Federal Government need not necessarily aspire to develop a comprehensive and coherent "education policy,'' since for the most part it treats education as a means rather than an end objective. It does require some designated place that has responsibility for assessing the full range of Federal activity as it affects education. Such a point would serve as liaison with educators and institutional representatives, identify any ill effects of Federal activities and propose--for White House and Executive Branch action--needed remedies so that the national purposes for which educational services are required can be achieved. Such a place must be at a sufficiently high level in the Federal structure to survey the entire range of Federal activity in all departments and agencies.

Any unit with responsibility to review the effects of Federal activities must be sensitive to a wide range of issues and institutions, not merely, for example, public elementary and secondary schools.

4.There must be a spokesperson for Federal interests in education. Elimination of the Secretarial position and the existence of the large number and size of Federal education activities outside the present Department argue strongly for provision of a senior spokesperson for education. Such an individual would speak for Administration policies affecting education, provide a platform (or "bully pulpit") for discussion of important aspects of education in which there is a Federal interest, provide a point of contact for interest groups, and deal with Government-wide policy level concerns in education with access to the top level decision-making councils.

The Secretary's Recommendation

The recommended approach is to create a national foundation for education.

A foundation would provide the structure for the Federal Government to offer whatever limited assistance the Administration might propose for schools, colleges, and students. At the same time, it would provide such assistance from an organizational structure intentionally created to render financial support, conduct research, and provide other forms of assistance, but to avoid direction and control

The foundation would initially include most activities of the Department of Education since responsibilities under existing law must be fulfilled. Although even at the beginning the foundation's leaner size and greater emphasis on supportive functions for educational excellence could be indicated by transfer of such activities as the following to other agencies:

Guaranteed student loans and Pell Grants to the Department of the Treasury ($5,403 million for FY 1982);

Veterans' cost of instruction allowances to the Veterans' Administration ($12 million for FY 1982);

Institute for Museum Services to the National Endowment for the Humanities ($10 million for FY 1982);

Indian Education programs to the Department of the Interior ($82 million for FY 1982).

An attractive feature would be the ability of the foundation to adjust to changes as new Administration policies are implemented. Since January 20, the Administration's policy changes that could fittingly be housed in a foundation include reduced funding levels for Department programs; proposed elimination of programs; block grants with a sharply curtailed Federal administrative role; deregulation; shift to greater use of the private sector for loan collections; and more cooperative enforcement of civil rights laws. These are only the first of the Reagan Administration measures to streamline the Federal education functions and make them less intrusive. For example, the Administration will propose additional block grants and program consolidations; program mergers; transfers to other agencies; and reduction in staff functions through changes in regulations, monitoring and review. A foundation would provide the flexibility to handle such changes.

A foundation would meet all of the objectives described....Its very name conveys the supportive, non-coercive nature of the Federal role the Administration seeks. A foundation would not substitute for necessary changes in laws, administrative practices, regulations and other determinants of the Federal presence in education. But, it would be perceived as a strong indicator of the direction in which the Government should move and an appropriate home for a more restrained Federal role in the years ahead.

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Pages 10-11

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