Education Dept. Throws Itself A 20th-Anniversary Party
Just five years ago, many believed the Department of Education wouldn't be around to see its 20th anniversary.
The federal government faced a severe budget crunch, and members of the new Republican majority in Congress had vowed to do away with what they deemed an inefficient bureaucracy that had usurped state and local authority over schools.
Yet the agency has now not only survived its teenage years, but some of the same Republicans who wanted to eliminate it are helping pour millions of new dollars into its programs.
So when employees took to the spacious front lawn of the headquarters building here May 4 to celebrate the anniversary, spirits were high and, appropriately, the sun was shining brightly.
Dozens of civil servants brought their lunches outside to listen to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley praise their performance, speak about the department's role, and serve a cake to commemorate the day in 1980 that President Jimmy Carter issued an order creating the new agency. In 1979, Mr. Carter had signed legislation abolishing the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, creating a new Department of Health and Human Services, and authorizing him to create the Department of Education.
For many, it was a time to reminisce.
"I have been here 31 years, and I really take great pleasure in being here," said Bill Smith, a former U.S. commissioner of education who is now the department's director of the empowerment- zone/enterprise-community program.
Mr. Smith, who oversaw the agency's transition from the Department of HEW, recalled stories of working with the six secretaries of education, starting with Shirley M. Hufstedler. But he made no secret of his favorite—Mr. Riley, who has served in that post longer than any other.
"We now have a secretary that is the most loved, admired, and respected of any education secretary that we've ever had," Mr. Smith declared.
Mr. Riley, who began his tenure in 1993, was equally enthusiastic about the agency's employees.
"Over the past 20 years, initiatives, grants, and research at the department have been an important part of our nation's achievements in education," the secretary said. "I'm looking forward to great accomplishments in our last year together."
He couldn't resist creating a time capsule of sorts. In 1980, he noted, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was in the 700s, "Dallas" was the top- ranked TV show, and Michael Jordan was a high school basketball star whom Mr. Riley, then the governor of South Carolina, was trying to help recruit for the University of South Carolina.
Computers were a novelty in schools, and students with disabilities were rarely seen in regular classrooms, he added.
"Our world has changed, and so have our schools," Mr. Riley said.
The May 4 event also celebrated the agency's racial and ethnic diversity. The Education Department, which has one of the highest percentages of minority and disabled workers of any federal agency, has made diversity awareness a priority in its internal relations.
Vol. 19, Issue 36, Page 30Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as Education Dept. Throws Itself A 20th-Anniversary Party