Education Department, at 25, Still Has Its Skeptics

By Michelle R. Davis — September 20, 2005 5 min read
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As the Department of Education marks its 25th anniversary this year, it continues to fend off critics who say it should be eliminated or demoted in the hierarchy of the federal government.

Even some who have served at the helm of the department believe that the current structure of the Education Department doesn’t work. During a panel discussion on Sept. 9 marking a quarter-century since the department began operating, former Republican Secretaries of Education William J. Bennett and Lamar Alexander agreed that the agency should return to a sub-Cabinet-level federal office of education, which began in 1868.

“Did creating this department 25 years ago make things better?” asked Mr. Alexander, who served as secretary from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush. “I doubt the things it has done couldn’t have been done by an office of education and an adviser,” he added, referring to the idea of an education adviser to the president stationed in the White House.

Mr. Alexander shared the dais with Mr. Bennett, who served under President Reagan from 1985 to 1988, and Rod Paige, who was secretary during President Bush’s first term. Andrew J. Rotherham, a former education adviser to President Clinton, stood in for Richard W. Riley, who was secretary throughout President Clinton’s two terms and could not attend the forum. The event was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

Trading Votes

Many historians view the creation of the Education Department as a political payoff. President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, pledged to work to create a federal department in exchange for support from the National Education Association during his first presidential campaign, in 1976. That support marked the first time the NEA formally endorsed a presidential candidate.

Prior to its formation as a department, the federal Office of Education operated under the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Birth of an Agency

Here are some key dates in the creation of the federal Department of Education.

Sept. 27, 1979: Bill to establish a Cabinet-level Department of Education gains final approval in Congress.

Oct. 17, 1979: President Jimmy Carter signs bill into law. It’s generally acknowledged that he backed the creation of the department in exchange for the support of the National Education Association during his 1976 bid for the presidency.

May 7, 1980: The Department of Education begins operations, led by its first secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler.

Nov. 4, 1980: President Carter loses his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan, who pledges to dismantle the department. Despite recurring support among some Republicans for eliminating the agency, that idea eventually loses steam.

SOURCE: Education Week

“The department was created basically fulfilling a campaign promise to the NEA,” Maris A. Vinovskis, an education historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in an interview. “It didn’t come into being because of a need.”

The first secretary of education was Shirley M. Hufstedler, who left a federal judgeship in Los Angeles to serve. But she was barely settled before President Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980 to Ronald Reagan.

President Reagan had campaigned in part on a pledge to scrap the new Department of Education. Though he was unsuccessful, he wasn’t the last Republican to attack the department. The midterm elections in 1994, when a Republican majority swept into Congress, marked the start of a renewed assault.

By 1996, as President Clinton ran for re-election, Republicans renewed their calls for the department’s dismantling. The idea has faded, particularly since President Bush and a GOP-controlled Congress led a vast expansion of the federal role in education with the passage in 2001 of the No Child Left Behind Act.

But the notion of downgrading the federal department hasn’t disappeared entirely. Mr. Alexander, now a U.S. senator from Tennessee who serves on the Senate education committee, said he believed that a federal office of education with a presidential education adviser who tracks issues from preschool through higher education would have more impact. Currently, federal education oversight is fractured, and responsibilities for different programs are spread across departments, he said.

“Many other [federal] departments have a portion of education,” he said.

Mr. Bennett agreed. “I’m also not sure we need a federal department of education,” he said.

He argued, however, that having a federal secretary of education provides an important bully pulpit. Mr. Bennett was viewed as a master of using his position in that way, famously calling the Chicago school system the worst in the nation. That 1987 assessment set off a chain of events that included the Illinois legislature turning over control of the city’s public schools to the mayor of Chicago in 1995. Mr. Paige said it was not the Education Department’s structure that mattered, but how firm its convictions were. Before President Bush took office, people in the field often viewed federal regulations as “things to get around,” he said.

While Mr. Rotherham critiqued the department’s efforts over the years, he said, “I don’t associate myself with the notion that that means we should somehow devalue either rhetorically or substantively the Department of Education.”

A Powerful Place

The Education Department has helped shape the school improvement movement with support for national subject-matter standards and the No Child Left Behind law. But nothing helped to shore up the department more than the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk, published under Terrel H. Bell, President Reagan’s first education secretary.

The report was an urgent call for expecting more from American students and was a key to repelling Republican attacks, said Christopher T. Cross, who spent nearly three decades working on education policy in Washington, including as an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.

The report “took the idea off the plate in terms of dismantling the department,” said Mr. Cross, whose 2003 book Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age is an account of the evolving federal role in education. “The White House saw the public reaction to it, and there was no turning back.”

Since then, there has been a slow evolution as Republicans, many of whom once worked to shoot the department down, have now made education a centerpiece of their domestic agenda.

But much of the department’s success has come because of its Cabinet-level status, Marshall S. Smith, a former deputy education secretary under President Clinton, argued in an interview.

“The difference between having a secretary who can pick up the phone and talk to the president and a commissioner who finds it hard to get through to the head of [the Office of Management and Budget] is significant,” he said. “There’s no way an adviser on education could compete.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Education Department, at 25, Still Has Its Skeptics


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