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The Ever-Shifting Politics of the Department of Education

Friday, February 10, 2017 12:13
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This week Rep. Thomas Massie introduced a bill to abolish the Department of Education. To judge from the number of people in my social-media feeds who think this would be a step into the Stone Age, it isn’t widely remembered that the department is fairly young—Jimmy Carter carved it out of the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1979—and that the politics surrounding it have rarely fallen into a neat left/right split.

That was especially true when the department was being born. The National Education Association supported it, of course—it was basically a gift to the group. But the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, was opposed—again because it was a gift to the NEA. One of the country’s leading civil rights groups, the National Urban League, was in favor. But the Congressional Black Caucus was suspicious, and Rep. Shirley Chisholm becoming one of the proposal’s leading opponents. “It seems to me that many of your professional associations would love to see the creation of this separate Department,” she said, “but those groups in this country who do not have the powerful lobby groups, who do not have the financial resources, such as the Indians, the disadvantaged youngsters, the Hispanic youngsters…these are the groups that are apt to get lost in a separate Department of Education, where the focus is going to be brought to bear on the part of very powerful groups in this country.”

The press wasn’t enthusiastic either. The New York Times condemned the proposal in an editorial headlined “Centralizing Education Is No Reform.” And when The Washington Post tackled the topic, its editorial began: “Once in a while a bill comes along that is so thoroughly bad that most legislators who support it come to regret their vote.”

While the liberals went to war with each other, some conservatives decided the new department could be an instrument for advancing their own favorite policies. Republicans started tacking amendments to the bill, covering topics from abortion to busing; one declared that the department would permit school prayer. Many of these were meant more as poison pills than as serious proposals. But even after they were stripped out, some prominent conservatives wound up backing the legislation. Looking back from 2017, the congressional vote is full of surprises: Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott voted to create the department, while Chisholm, John Conyers, and Charles Rangel all voted no.

Over the following years, some of the issues that seemed relevant in 1979 dimmed in importance. A lot of liberal opposition to the department, especially in the civil rights community, boiled down to “We know how to lobby for our causes at HEW; disrupting that could put us at a disadvantage.” Once they started adjusting to the new order, that wasn’t such a concern anymore. Still, as late as 1992, two Democratic presidential candidates—Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey—both called for euthanizing the department. Brown, denouncing it as “a massive bureaucratic waste” that “educates no student,” said he’d move some of its functions to other parts of the federal government and devolve the rest to the states. Kerrey wanted to consolidate it and several other seats of the Cabinet into a new Department of Human Resources.

Conservatives, meanwhile, fell into a love/hate relationship with Carter’s creation. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan pledged to abolish it. But once the GOP actually controlled the education bureuacracy and found it could be used to push for “national standards” and suchlike, more than a few Republicans made their peace with it. To this day there’s a tension between the conservatives who’d kill the department and those who prefer to bend it to their own uses. I’ve known a few who seem to waver between the two positions, regaining their passion for abolishing it whenever a Democrat is elected and losing interest when he leaves office.

Give Massie and his cosponsors credit: They’re standing by their position even under a Republican president and a sympathetic secretary. We may soon see how many others in the House and Senate agree.


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