Creating the Education Department

Private Schools Were Wary, 25 Years Ago, of a New Federal Agency

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To the Editor:

I read with great interest and remembrance Christopher T. Cross’ Commentary on the creation of the federal Department of Education ("The U.S. Department of Education at 25: A History Remembered," Oct. 20, 2004). As he correctly pointed out, the U.S. Catholic Conference was against the establishment of the department. In fact, most of private education was against a bill that could seemingly further relegate private education to the bowels of an enlarged educational bureaucracy.

The Education Amendments of 1978 had established, however, an office of nonpublic education, known as ONPE. This small line staff of five was headed by an assistant commissioner, Edward R. D’Alessio, who formerly had been the head of government relations for the Catholic Conference.

On Sept. 24, 1979, with the final vote very much in doubt, Mr. D’Alessio was called by the White House and asked to lobby for the establishment of the department with seven congressmen who were slated to vote against the bill. With days left before the vote, experienced Hill-watchers were calling it a one- or two-“nay”-vote difference. For Mr. D’Alessio, the call posed a dilemma. His constituency, private school interests, was against the bill. His employer, the president, was for it. Mr. D’Alessio decided to lobby. He met with the seven congressmen, five of whom eventually did vote no. Two others, Rep. Frank Guarini, D-N.J., and James Scheuer, D-N.Y., called the president following the D’Alessio meeting and asked to meet with him at breakfast the following day, Sept. 26.

That afternoon, ONPE received by special messenger a copy of a letter from Rep. Guarini to President Carter. The letter read in part:

“I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to review with you at breakfast my concerns about the Department of Education Organization Act. ... I am pleased to have your recognition of the importance of our private schools by implementing legislation that would create an Assistant Secretary for and an Office of Private Education in the Department of Education.”

Later that day, a copy of the presidential response to Rep. Guarini arrived at ONPE. It read in part, “You have my personal commitment that this office will be continued at the highest level, headed by an assistant secretary. These goals will be met during the implementation of this reorganization.”

When the final vote was taken, Reps. Guarini and Scheuer voted in favor of the bill. Within two weeks, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a revised organizational chart that included an assistant secretary for nonpublic education and an office of nonpublic education—both were discretionary establishments.

During the Reagan years, the line function of ONPE was terminated. It once again became a staff office.

Regan Kenyon
Princeton, N.J.

The writer is the president of the Secondary School Admission Test Board. In 1978, while serving as a national fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, he was the first official appointed to the federal office of nonpublic education.

Vol. 24, Issue 11, Page 37

Published in Print: November 10, 2004, as Creating the Education Department

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