Maybe it never should have been carved out of the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the first place, but the fact is that Jimmy Carter, politically indebted to the N.E.A. for his election (and unable to get out from the commitment he had made to them in return), winkled it through Congress in 1979. I helped Pat Moynihan in his (obviously unsuccessful) effort to keep this from happening. (If you want the gory details, read chapter 7 of Troublemaker.
Reagan vowed to undo this abomination, but Ted Bell could not find a single Senator willingeven to introduce the bill. (Howard Baker vowed to vote AGAINST the repeal!)
After the 1994 GOP sweep of Congress, a bunch of Gingrich’s feisty young House members vowed to try again. They got absolutely nowhere, not least because Bill Clinton, political magician, managed to make being against the Department of Education like being against small children and friendly teachers. (He did the same thing to Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential campaign when Dole said something critical of teacher unions.)
Undaunted, Rick Perry would try again. (Education, and Commerce and, er, uh, something else, maybe the National Zoo?)
This is, frankly, symbolic politics at its silliest. One could make a powerful case, and I (and many others) have, for radically altering the federal ROLE in education to make it more targeted, less controlling, smarter, more efficient. But that involves the heavy lifting of programs, authorizing statutes, regulations, bureaucracy, budgets and appropriations, not the name over the building’s front door. One could abolish the “Department” of education and absolutely nothing would change except that those hundreds of programs and tens of billions of dollars would be administered somewhere else in Washington, maybe back in a reincarnated Department of H.E.W.
Serious candidates will–and should–talk about the federal ROLE in education and how it ought to change. The current election campaign is impoverished by the fact that practically nobody is doing so. But just changing the sign over 400 Maryland Ave SW is a great big nothing burger.
-Chester E. Finn, Jr.
This post also appeared on Flypaper