Educators Remain Split Over Cabinet-Level Agency
When the U.S. Department of Education opened its doors on May 4, 1980, advocates of adding the agency to the Cabinet hoped the move would bring greater visibility and status to education issues, both within the government and in the eyes of the nation.
Opponents, on the other hand, predicted the growth of an expensive, wasteful bureaucracy, inappropriate meddling by federal officials in local matters, and increased power for educational interest groups, particularly the National Education Association, which had been the primary proponent of creating the agency.
Ten years later, opinion remains divided on the effect and desirability of Cabinet status for education.
Observers agree that education has risen in importance as both a national and a federal issue, but they differ in their assessments of the department's contribution to that phenomenon.
And they agree that assessing the department's impact is complicated by the fact that it was controlled for virtually the entire decade by an Administration that took office promising to abolish it.
The department did not begin life with a ringing mandate.
The bill creating it, championed by President Carter, escaped the House Government Operations Committee by only one vote, and it passed the full House by four votes. Proponents were forced to move some programs, such as Indian schools, out of the new agency and promise limits on its payroll to secure passage.
The department's first Secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler, held the reins of an operative agency for only six months. After being confirmed in November 1979, she spent five months organizing the new depart4ment into a structure that, while it has been altered somewhat, retains most of its original framework.
With Ronald Reagan's November 1980 election as President, the question of education's status was again called into question.
"The solidity of Congressional support that emerged shocked the department and shocked the Administration," said Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the nea "The department has done so well that few people now recognize how young it is and how tenuous its existence was."
Terrel H. Bell, a career educator who had served as Commissioner of Education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare un8der President Nixon, arrived in Washington prepared to help shut down the department and ease its transition to a foundation or independent agency.
But, as he recounted in his 1987 memoir and again in an interview last week, Mr. Bell soon realized the value of a seat at the Cabinet table.
"In Washington, the difference between being Cabinet and not being Cabinet is enormous," Mr. Bell said. "When I had a Cabinet position, I could call a senator or a governor, and they would take my call. Other times, you would talk to an administrative assistant."
"As for that seat at the table," he said, "if you didn't feel right about a decision made at [the Office of Management and Budget], or by one of the senior White House staff members, you had a chance to raise the issue because you were there."
"I think [the department] has had a very great impact upon education," Mr. Bell added. "I think there are many things that have happened that wouldn't have happened or at least wouldn't have had the power and the influence they had if we had been the little 'e' in HEW"
As a commissioner, Mr. Bell said, he would not have had the clout to launch the panel that produced the landmark report A Nation at Risk or to garner the media interest to promote it. And he would not have been in a position to have the conversations with governors that led him to produce the department's first "wall chart" of state-by-state education data.
Elevating Education's Visibility
Mr. Bell is perhaps uniquely qualified to assess the effect of Cabinet status, but many observers agree with his assessment.
Harold Howe 2nd, a professor of education at Harvard University who served as Commissioner in the Johnson Administration, said he was the only former Commissioner to testify against creating the department before the Congress. He said he thought the proposal had been made too hastily, but that he has since changed his mind.
"The fact that the President has to appoint somebody who is going to be his person on education in a visible way, because it's going to be a Cabinet appointment, gives education an avenue to the White House in a way it otherwise might not have," he said.
"There was great debate about whether separating it from what is now [the Department of Health and Human Services] would elevate the visibility of education," said Marshall S. Smith, dean of Stanford University's education school, but Mr. Bell and his successor, William J. Bennett, "left little doubt that it was indeed the case."
"Bennett was outspoken, but he wouldn't have gotten the attention he got if he had been a commissioner," said Mr. Smith, the chief of staff to Secretary Hufstedler and an assistant commissioner under Ernest L. Boyer, now president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, before the department's creation.
"I don't think a commissioner would have felt comfortable spelling out what he thought should be the curriculum of a high school or an elementary school," he said, referring to Mr. Bennett's well-publicized curricular proposals. "Boyer gave speeches about the core curriculum, but they didn't get the attention 'James Madison High School' got."
'I Never Expected Much'
Both Mr. Bell and Mr. Bennett were able to "make education an issue'' for President Reagan, said Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, leading him from a policy consisting only of budget cuts to advocacy of "standards, performance, and American values."
"If Bennett had been a commissioner," Mr. Ambach said, "his position would have filtered up through another person, the Secretary of HEW who would have had other concerns."
A survey by the group charged by President Carter with studying the question of Cabinet status for education found that, of 17 major speeches made in a year by then-Secretary of hew Joseph Califano, only one concerned education, said Willis D. Hawley, a Vanderbilt University dean who headed the study group and co-authored a 1988 book about the founding of the department.
Under the hew structure, several observers noted, education programs had to fight not only for the Secretary's attention, but also for priority in his budget.
"Freeing education from the bureaucratic swamp of hew has made it possible for the department to focus on needs and policies rather than internal politics," Mr. Edwards said. "It's almost unfathomable how dense the bureaucracy of hew was. It was very difficult for the Congress or the public to penetrate."
Some argue, however, that the position is less important than the occupant.
"I think if Bennett were director of an office of education, he could still have raised the visibility of education," said Jeanne Allen, an education analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "Likewise, [current Secretary] Lauro F. Cavazos has not garnered as much attention."
"It's not simply having the department that raises visibility, it's having leadership and recommendations for action," she said. "As for visibility with the President, the governors have been so active, it's hard to say whether it would have been raised anyway."
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, opposed the department in 1980, and he has not changed his mind.
"Compared with its status in HEW, education is more visible," he said, "but I don't think its visibility nationally is due to the Department of Education."
While the Nation at Risk report "was a very important rallying point for the beginning of the reform movement," Mr. Shanker said, "for most of its history, the department has not been much of a fighter for funds or programs."
"I never expected it to do much, so I wasn't disappointed," he said. "I thought it would be a small, isolated department, while being part of HEW allowed the coalition [of labor, health, and social-services organizations] that supported the programs to override almost all of Nixon's vetoes."
Increased Federal Focus
Mr. Bennett acknowledged in an interview that his extensive use of the "bully pulpit" gained a higher profile because of its location in the Cabinet.
Saying he would have been content with a commissionership, however, Mr. Bennett questioned the notion that increased visibility has been a major boon for education.
"We certainly raised the visibility of education issues to the lobbyists and journalists," Mr. Bennett said. "But you can't say the department has been a success when American educational progress is dead in the water and sinking."
"The worst thing is that it has focused attention on Washington as a way of solving problems and created 275 interest groups that spend their time lobbying on the Hill," he said. "The attention has been focused on what the federal government can do for your school and not what the community can do."
Mr. Bennett's comments echo the arguments of conservatives who opposed creating the department: that it would unduly strengthen the federal role in education and would be controlled by ever-more-powerful educational interest groups.
"The concept was that the department was going to be able to wield more clout in education, and that was precisely my concern," said Representative Robert S. Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican who was a leading opponent of creating the department.
"This hasn't been as noticeable as one might have thought," he said, "largely because we've had a reasonably conservative Administration bringing the department into being."
Ms. Allen argued, however, that, while the agency has not brought about the "heavy, heavy federal role" envisioned by its creators, "the number of programs has grown, the number of regulations has doubled and tripled, the special interests have grown enormously and have grown ever more powerful on Capitol Hill."
"That's ridiculous," Mr. Edwards said. "The visibility and independence of the department actually makes it more accountable and less subject to the whims of special interests."
"I think [the department] has politicized education, and I think the interest groups have more power, and I think both of them have been positive for education," Mr. Bell said. "We make our way through the political process; that's the way in America."
As to whether the department has grown or shrunk, the evidence is mixed. It had almost 7,000 employees when Mr. Reagan took office; it now has about 4,500.
The number of new programs added since 1980 outstrips those eliminated, but not by a wide margin.However, some of the additions are sizable, such as an anti-drug program funded at $460 million in 1990, and some existing programs, notably the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program, have grown substantially.
Over all, the department's outlays have increased from $13.1 billion in fiscal 1980 to $24.1 billion this year. But growth has outpaced the inflation rate only slightly, and, in many of those years, it lagged behind it.
Credit to Congress
Some observers who favor a stronger federal role credit the higher status with helping to preserve a federal presence in a hostile climate.
"It's hard to know what effect [the department] has had on policy, because there was such a sea change in federal policy during the Reagan Administration," Mr. Hawley said.
"Some believe Secretary Bell used his office to sustain a federal role in education," he said. "Whatever was in his heart, the result of [A Nation at Risk] was to make it impossible for the department to be abolished, impossible to argue that the federal government doesn't have a role in improving education, impossible to argue it isn't a national problem."
Mr. Bell acknowledged he worked to preserve a federal role, and said Cabinet status gave him the clout to fight "movement conservatives" he was forced to appoint--and who he says tried to undermine his authority and some education programs.
Mr. Ambach said Cabinet status allows the department to attract higher-quality personnel--something he thinks would be difficult had a lesser agency "taken the internal pounding" that the department suffered during the Reagan years.
But he said the Congress deserves most of the credit for preserving a federal role in education.
Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, agreed.
"I think the federal role would have been bigger whether there was a department or not," he said. "Special populations were underserved, and there was going to be a demand that they be served."
"There were those of us that weren't going to allow" the programs to be destroyed, Mr. Goodling added, "not because there was a department, but because of a philosophical belief I had and others had."
Mr. Goodling said he opposed the department because "I feared we wouldn't get all the entities under one roof, and we haven't."
Many education-related programs, he noted, such as child nutrition and the Defense Department schools, remain outside the department.
Promises To Fulfill?
Some proponents of the department say it will have to wait for a more sympathetic administration to fulfill its promise.
"I don't feel that the presence of the department as a Cabinet department close to the Presidency has been fully implemented so far," Mr. Howe said. "It can mean much more than it has."
"If there's an area that's been disappointing for some of the supporters, it's that there have been people in the White House who have not been as supportive of education, or at least of the federal role, as we would have liked," Mr. Edwards said. "They have tried to undermine the department's mission, either through funding or through some of the appointments."
"It was frustrating to those in the Carter Administration that a lot of plans were made but never carried out," Mr. Smith added.
He said Ms. Hufstedler did not have time to "bring the department under any kind of administrative control that brings out the best in people," and consequently "morale has been low for years."
"Substantive" initiatives also waited in the wings, he said, starting with a "youth act" that was designed to pump $10 billion into schools in "desperate areas."
Despite regrets on both sides, the department did receive some accolades in honor of its anniversary.
The Senate passed a resolution declaring May 4 "Department of Education Day."
In a statement, Mr. Cavazos acknowledged that there is "a long way to go" in improving academic performance. But he expressed "great satisfaction" in the department's achievements, particularly "an unprecedented growth in federal assistance to deserving students" and seeing "education itself declared a high national priority."
The department held an outdoor celebration featuring exhibits and educational games for schoolchildren.
Mr. Bennett's reaction to the festivities underscores the difference of opinion between him and others who have held the office: "I don't think we should celebrate birthday parties for government bureaucracies. It's a socialist, fascist notion."
Vol. 09, Issue 33, Pages 1, 38Published in Print: May 9, 1990, as Educators Remain Split Over Cabinet-Level Agency