GOP drives federal role in education

October 17, 2005|By THOMAS TOCH

President Jimmy Carter signed the U.S. Department of Education into existence on Oct. 17, 1979, over the intense opposition of Republican lawmakers who saw the new federal agency as a power grab by teachers unions and an attack on states' rights.

But since then, one Republican administration after another has steadily increased the department's influence - and in the process set in motion fundamental changes in the nation's education system.

President Carter had lobbied Congress to give education Cabinet status largely at the behest of the National Education Association, the increasingly powerful teachers union that had helped propel the Georgia Democrat into the White House in 1976 and wanted more federal funding for education.

Not surprisingly, Ronald Reagan, who loathed unions and Washington regulations, pledged both as candidate and as president to abolish the new department (the Constitution hadn't given the federal government an explicit role in education, and authority on the matter had devolved to the states and local school systems).

But the landmark "A Nation at Risk" school reform report, released by Mr. Reagan's education secretary, Terrel Bell, in 1983, made impossible the president's call to downgrade the department to a "foundation for education assistance." The report was front-page news and spurred national reform efforts.

In response, Mr. Reagan's advisers, who earlier had refused to give the prestigious commission assembled to write the report White House status, put the president behind the report's recommended reforms, and his protestations about "the federal intrusion" in education fell silent.

It was the lack of improvement in test scores in the wake of the "Nation at Risk"-inspired movement that led President George H. W. Bush and the nation's governors to buck the trend of local control in public education and establish national education "goals" at a Charlottesville, Va., summit in 1989.

Then the Republican president and his secretary of education, Lamar Alexander, went much further. They proposed in 1991 that the U.S. Department of Education build a system of voluntary national examinations linked to new national - not federal - standards in key academic subjects.

The proposal languished in Congress, but it represented a major move toward a more powerful role for Washington in American education.

And what his father started, George W. Bush finished.

The president's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law gives the federal education agency unprecedented power to require states to set standards for their schools and to sanction schools and school systems that don't measure up. And there's a good chance that a blueprint for a single set of national standards and national exams will emerge under the Education Department's leadership by decade's end.

The confusing patchwork of standards and tests established under NCLB has led both conservative and liberal school-reform organizations to support such a step, wisely.

But it is still fashionable for conservatives to attack the Education Department in some circles. At an event last month marking the department's 25th anniversary at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank, Mr. Alexander, now a Tennessee senator, proposed downgrading the department to its pre-1979 agency status.

The agency isn't a very good vehicle for school reform, he said.

But the Education Department today is, under NCLB, at the center of American school reform, and its influence is only likely to expand as the United States moves toward the centralized standards and tests that are common in the education systems of our European and Asian economic competitors.

And it is conservative Republicans such as President Reagan, Senator Alexander and both President Bushes who are largely responsible for department's rise.

Thomas Toch is co-director of Education Sector, a Washington-based education think tank.

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