FOR MORE THAN 100 years now, They've been tryping to puch this one through Congress. Way back in 1876, when he was just a representive from Ohio, James A. Garfield introduced a bill to create a separate Department of Education. Although the proposal has changed a bit over the last few decades, the message is still the same: Educational issues are being buried in the federal bureaucracy, and if it's to be taken seriously, education must be given its own special home on the banks of the Potomac.
In keeping with this tradition, the 96th Congress is debating legislation that would create a separate Cabinet-level Department of Education (DOE). A House-Senate conference committee, having hashed out the differences between DOE bills H.R. 2444 and S.210, will soon send the compromise legislation back to the Senate for final passage. Despite some attempts in the house to tack controversial amendments onto the bill--H.R. 2444 included measures to allow prayer in public schools, ban forced busing and prohibit the use of the student fees for abortions--the idea of a Department is alive and somewhat well. Much as they'd like to shelve it once again, lawmakers on Capital Hill are going to have to decide whether or not they want to add chair number 13 to the president's table of advisers.
ESSENTIALLY, the legislation would transfer control of more than 300 federal education programs, now administered by about 40 federal agencies, to one centralized department. Proponents of the bill argue that the monstrous Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW)--never known for its efficiency--is crushing its education offspring in clammy bureaucratic jaws. The Commissioner of Education--the junior executive version of an education secretary--labors under four layers of bureaucratic waste; if, and when he sends up a flare, it never makes it to the top. It is an all too familiar tale of Washington woe: nobody knows--or cares--who is responsible for what.
Supporters of the Department of Education, including a slew of lawmakers and a variety of interest groups, have noisily bemoaned the fate of educational policies. Only a full-fledged Department, they insist, can ensure that education gets the national "visibility and attention" that it deserves. We must have a single spokesperson for the education community, they say--even if he/she is just a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. If one is to believe its supporters, a department is the miracle cure for what ails the federal education bureaucracy, the wonder drug that will unclog the arteries and get the circulation flowing again.
If you scrape away all the rhetoric, however, the bill boils down to what Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.) calls "a political payoff in every sense of the word." By all rights, both the House and Senate versions should have followed the path of their numerous successors, slowly fading into oblivion while a committee decided it had more important things to do. But back in 1976, Jimmy Carter discovered the National Education Association--an uncommitteed and potentially powerful block of votes. So Carter promised the NEA a department of its very own and the NEA gave Carter its first endorsment of a presidential candidate. The president has tried to keep his promise--a down payment for the NEA's support in the 1980 election.
Even if you overlook the fact that the proposal is just so much political baggage, however, the content of the legislation is grounds enough for dismissal. It is ironic that the Washington outsider whose 1976 campaign platform promised to pare down the overgrown federal blob has thrown his support behind a proposal that will further crowd the Washington community and further extend a tradition of Washington mismanagement. A separate cabinet-level Department of Education, is the easy way out. For more than 30 years, education has been the orphan child of the Washington bureacracy--drifting from the Interior Department to the Federal Security Agency and finally coming to rest at HEW. Carter is simply grabbing at a simplistic solution, lifting the "E" out of HEW and dumping it into yet another foster home. New cabinet departments need more than a little luck and a few Senate-approved Secretaries to get off the ground. The fledgling Department of Energy's inability to deal with its own internal spasms should be lesson enough. Simply changing people's titles and conferring a new glow "status" on education will not yield the results that many foresee.
IF THERE ARE PROBLEMS with federal education apparatus--and there clearly are--cutting the umbilical cord between education and its bureaucratic mother is no way to solve them. The estimated $17 million needed to establish a Department of Education would be better spent in an internal reorganization of HEW. Some interest groups have supported the idea of reorganization along the lines of the military services in the Department of Defense, an idea that must be explored further.
A separate cabinet-level Department of Education is, in essence, a "more" proposal in a bureaucratic atmosphere that demands less. Given the choice between extensive surgery and amputation, the good surgeon will opt for the former. --and consider the latter only as a last resort.
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