Federal Opinion

The U.S. Department of Education at 25: A History Remembered

By Christopher T. Cross — October 19, 2004 8 min read
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Last Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004, marked the 25th anniversary of the day President Carter signed into law the bill creating the U.S. Department of Education. The story of how that vote came to be is a tale of raw politics, a Cabinet officer who incurred the wrath of the president, and an American tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

The tale began in 1976, when an obscure Southern governor named Jimmy Carter recognized the power of teachers’ unions in the Democratic presidential-nominating process. That was also the year when, after decades of flirting with the idea, the National Education Association made its first formal endorsement for president.

In his quest for the presidency, Gov. Carter built a careful network of supporters across the country. He often relied on teachers and artfully used his own record of support for education in Georgia as an issue in the primaries. His opponent in the general election was Gerald R. Ford, a president weakened by not having been elected to the office, and by his pardon of Richard M. Nixon in an effort to place the Watergate scandal in the nation’s collective rearview mirror.

The establishment of a free-standing Department of Education was one of Mr. Carter’s campaign themes, based on a pledge he made to the NEA in securing its endorsement. Since the creation of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, the federal Office of Education had been a small agency within HEW headed by a commissioner, a person holding one of the lowest-level presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed posts in that department.

After President Carter’s election, his pledge earned him some immediate support in the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut chaired the relevant committee. Sen. Ribicoff had in fact served as secretary of HEW early in the Kennedy administration and hated the job, believing that the department was too large and simply unmanageable.

In the House, the situation was far different. There was no immediate champion. Sen. Ribicoff’s House counterpart was Jack Brooks, a feisty Texan with more interest in energy than education, and someone not all that interested in expanding the bureaucracy.

In addition, before Rep. Brooks would act, he wanted to know exactly what the president was proposing. This meant that the Carter administration faced some major questions, most importantly, which programs from which agencies would be included in this new department and which ones would be left where they were.

In his first year in office, President Carter was preoccupied with creating a federal Department of Energy, allowing the education issue to languish. He did create a team in the Office of Management and Budget to deal with these issues. The overall group was headed by Harrison Wellford. Pat Gwaltney, later Pat Gwaltney McGinnis, headed the education team.

The OMB effort identified 267 programs in 24 different federal agencies that might be moved into a new Department of Education, ranging from veterans’ education benefits to federal personnel training, to programs for the arts and culture. Many of these programs, as well as Head Start and Indian education, were included in legislation from Sen. Ribicoff, who, impatient for Mr. Carter to act, introduced his own bill in 1977.

The planning team from the OMB held meetings around the country with those who might be affected by agency transfers. Opposition to almost all of the proposed changes was so fierce that the list that reached Mr. Carter was truncated to include just a handful of organizational changes. Finally, the team gave the president three options:

  • Create a narrow department largely based on the E in HEW.
  • Create a department containing education and human-development programs such as foster care and adoption services.
  • Reorganize HEW along the lines of the U.S. Department of Defense, so that each component would have a high-level leader reporting to a “super secretary.”

The last option was a concession to then-Secretary of HEW Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former Johnson White House aide, who, in collaboration with opponents such as American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, the U.S. Catholic Conference, and most of the higher education world, was waging an all-out war against the idea of a new department.

In a meeting on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1977, President Carter seemed to agree to go ahead with the somewhat larger agency, but also told Secretary Califano that he could do some reorganization in HEW. But the president still wanted a final-decision memo on what would be in the not-yet-introduced administration bill.

Finally, literally hours before the OMB team was to testify in the Senate in April 1978, President Carter decided that he would support the Ribicoff bill, which included the Indian education program from the Department of Interior, the arts and humanities endowments, and other smaller programs. Having heard from the opposition, Sen. Ribicoff later would strip almost all of these programs out of the bill to maximize support for passage.

In the House, the politics were very different. Whereas Sen. Ribicoff shepherded his bill through his committee and then the full Senate, the opponents in the House were more effective, and they had as leaders Rep. John Erlenborn, an Illinois Republican who also served on the Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Leo Ryan, a California Democrat and a senior committee member. Neither of these two men, who worked closely together across party lines, had any love for the NEA, and both were excellent strategists, so much so that they kept the bill bottled up in the House committee in 1978, until it was too late to reach the floor before adjournment.

In one of those odd and tragic circumstances that become quirks of history, Leo Ryan traveled to the South American nation of Guyana after the November elections to investigate reports that a charismatic religious fanatic named Jim Jones had developed a dangerous cult. Many of the cult’s members, who were thought to be under threat of harm, came from Rep. Ryan’s San Francisco-area congressional district.

As he was trying to leave the Jones camp with several cultists who wanted out, Leo Ryan was murdered in cold blood. Under Jim Jones’ order, more than 900 people, almost 300 of them children, drank poisoned Kool-Aid and died on that November day. Leo Ryan had been the sparkplug of the Democratic opposition to the bill creating the department, and his death, in a macabre way, helped pave the way for its eventual, narrow passage in 1979.

By the time Congress reconvened that year, Mr. Carter had decided that he would send the bill forward, even though opposition in the media to any plan was at a crescendo. Almost every major newspaper, led by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, opposed the bill. In fact, the Times headlined its editorial opposing it “The High Price of Cheapening the Cabinet.”

Having finally seen that every transfer helped fuel opposition, Mr. Carter backed away from the transfer of the Head Start, Indian education, and child-nutrition programs. The only major transfer that remained was that of the schools for dependent children operated by the Department of Defense, most of them overseas. That transfer was vital for the Carter strategy, since it would give the proposed department the number of employees to make it seem credible. Slated for a delayed transfer, several years later, even this change would be undone before it actually took place.

Opponents in the House mounted one last push to stop the bill. Testifying against it were Mr. Shanker; Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children’s Defense Fund; Richard Lyman, the president of Stanford University; David Brenneman, a Brookings Institution scholar; and the executive director of the Pennsylvania school boards’ association.

On May 2, 1979, Rep. Brooks called for a vote, still a bit uncertain of the outcome. Whereas the bill had cleared the committee late in 1978 by a vote of 27-15, mostly along party lines, this vote was a razor-close 20-19. Ten weeks later, on July 11, the full House passed the bill by another very thin margin, 210-206, sending it to a conference with the Senate.

A week after the House vote, President Carter fired Secretary Califano, four other Cabinet officers, and another 30 top aides. It was widely reported that Mr. Califano had been fired because of his behind-the-scenes work against creation of the Department of Education.

The conference began in earnest after the August recess, and by Sept. 24, 1979, the conference report was adopted by the Senate. Three days later, the House passed it by a vote of 215-201, a weak measure of support. On Oct. 17, 1979, in the East Room of the While House, President Carter signed the bill, and within two weeks nominated Shirley M. Hufstedler, a federal judge in Los Angeles with no previous education experience, to be the first secretary of education.

On May 7, 1980, just over a year after that 20-19 vote in the House committee, the U.S. Department of Education officially came into being. Almost exactly six months later, Ronald Reagan beat Mr. Carter in the presidential election, and the prize that the NEA and others had so sought no longer looked like such a victory.

Terrel H. Bell, the first Republican to hold the secretaryship, took the job understanding that President Reagan wanted to abolish the fledgling agency. Mr. Bell, who had termed the commissioner of education job in HEW “one of the lowest forms of human life” in testimony in 1977 before the Ribicoff committee, managed in a brilliant move politically to neutralize the opposition when he created the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The release of that commission’s report, A Nation at Risk, on April 26, 1983, would forever change the conversation about education in this country, and virtually ensured the continued existence of the federal department.

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