Washington -- WE KNOW we don't need some character in the Department of Education with sandals and beads telling us how to educate our children," presidential candidate Pat Buchanan tells audiences.
All of Buchanan's Republican rivals for the White House would also do away with the U.S. Department of Education -- or, as they say around here, "zero it out" of the federal budget. But Buchanan, who honed his sound bites as a newspaper columnist and TV talkmeister, likes to twist the knife before thrusting it home.
Under Newt Gingrich, who could join the race, House Republicans have pulled the rug out from under President Clinton's education budget. Before leaving for their midsummer break, the full House appropriations panel had cut $4 billion out of education spending for the fiscal year that begins in October. By then, nearly 50 million American children -- who attend some 108,000 public and private schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade -- will be back in class.
They'll be back on a far leaner diet of federal dollars. Time will tell what impact these cuts will have on their ability to compete in what could be a rough worldwide marketplace.
This year, the feds sent grants totaling some $362 million to the states for Goals 2000, an education reform program aimed at raising U.S. school standards. Clinton asked Congress to up this figure to $693.5 million. So far, the lawmakers have responded by voting to spend nothing on Goals 2000. Up and down the line, the Republicans are "zeroing out" nearly all the education department's school improvement programs.
In fact, so far, only one of 18 such programs has survived. Under it, the government would spend $18 million in 1996 to help school libraries share resources. For good measure, some of the Republican plans also call for combining the education and labor departments under one small tent.
Predictably, this trend angers Education Secretary Richard Riley. Notes Riley, a former governor of South Carolina who has never been known to wear sandals to work: "In an era in which this nation faces an education deficit that is as great a long-term threat as the budget deficit, the merger plan . . . would set back efforts to improve education in our country."
Prior to the fall of the Republican axes, the department had fewer than 5,000 full-time workers, making it the smallest of the 14 federal cabinet-level agencies. By contrast, a middle-sized university such as Princeton employs 4,700 people on its staff.
Taken as a whole, the programs under Republican attack amount to about 2 percent of all federal spending. Their elimination would still leave about $465 billion a year in state, local and private outlays for overall educational needs.
Most of the federal dollars have been aimed at dealing with an ever-widening gap in income and social status between those of us who manage to get a good start in life and those who do not.
Thus, one goal in the now-imperiled Goals 2000 program would insure U.S. students are "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement." But at the rate the Republicans are going, we'll be fortunate if U.S. students wind up first in the world at making beads.
Andrew Glass is chief of the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau.