Among the dozens of alphabet-soup agencies that Ronald Reagan came into office pledging to rein in, the Department of Education stood out as the object of a special animus. Its establishment was one of the landmarks of the departing Carter administration. The bill creating the department had passed the house by only four votes in 1979, almost being derailed by an unusual coalition of the New Right, the Washington Post, the 600,000-member American Federation of Teachers, Catholic educators, and... Ronald Reagan.
On the 1980 campaign trail, Reagan returned often to the theme of an overbearing federal education bureaucracy. Education, he insisted, is the responsibility of states and local school boards. The Department of Education was "President Carter's new bureaucratic boondoggle." In tune with the Republican Party platform, Reagan vowed to dismantle it if elected.
Three years later, in December 1983, Secretary of Education Terrel Bell stood in triumph before a cheering crowd of 1,700 career educators in Indianapolis, celebrating the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. In its widely publicized report, A Nation at Risk, the commission called for such "reforms" as a longer school day and higher teacher salaries, without, however, noting how much the recommendations would cost. The National Education Association estimated the proposed reforms might require $23 billion a year in added state and federal aid.
The schools would be saved, Bell told the enthusiastic crowd; he implied that no longer would educators fear budget slashers. The United States was entering "a new era in American education... our finest opportunity in decades. We must not fail to bring it to full fruition."
And as 1984 dawned, Terrel Bell's department gave every sign of having become an entrenched bureaucracy. Each year, its budget resists shrinking in spite of much-touted streamlining and savings; what is taken from one budget area with the right hand is lavished on another with the left. The department weathers scandals with scarcely a dent in its image. Audits have turned up likely misspending of federal education grant monies by Jesse Jackson's PUSH-EXCEL program, but the department has managed to sit on politically sensitive details of those audits that we turned up in our investigation. We discovered that in another case, the department is laying plans to refund a research institute closed down in 1982 under the cloud of another spending scandal. And now Terrel Bell is dreaming of getting his department into a new product line that would guarantee the Education Department a spot in the political sun for many seasons to come.
The department slated for extinction has staged a remarkable turnaround. The story of how it happened is a story of how skillful bureaucrats operate in Washington, D.C.
In the heady euphoria that surrounded the Reagan entourage after their landslide 1980 victory, Edwin Meese III, Reagan's closest aide, had seen no need for the "new era" in federal education policy that Terrel Bell would later celebrate. Meese publicly called the Department of Education "a ridiculous bureaucratic joke" and privately, according to one of our sources, said that the only question left unanswered about its fate was "whether we should give the bureaucrats inside a warning before we blow the place up."
The selection of a cabinet secretary to head the department was delayed for six weeks as candidate after candidate demurred. Few wanted to captain a vessel bound for the breakers. According to Fred Barnes of the Baltimore Sun, Meese and personnel recruiter Pendleton James became desperate. Presidential pollster Richard Wirthlin suggested they look up his old friend from Utah, Terrel Bell, who had served as commissioner of education at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare (hew) under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
James and Meese were in California and scheduled to fly back to Washington. With time running out, they flew Bell from Utah to the San Diego airport where they were about to board a plane heading east. After a hurried 30-minute conference in the airport terminal, they agreed to recommend Bell to the president.
Less than two weeks before the inauguration, Bell was finally named to the cabinet. He breezed through his confirmation hearings, with minimal sniping from Reagan critics. Small wonder, since in many respects he was an odd choice for the Reagan administration.
A lifelong professional educator, Bell had for years been a champion of a clearly defined, albeit limited, role for the federal government in education. Incredibly enough, in the Carter years he had actually testified before a congressional committee on behalf of creating the Department of Education, the agency he was now assigned to abolish.
Or was he? Shortly after his nomination, Bell met with reporters and was asked what plans he had to work himself out of a job. He replied that in his meeting with the president, neither Reagan nor his aides had suggested disbanding the department-they had only asked him to study the matter and propose how the federal education bureaucracy should be structured in the future.
The political appointees who had been brought into the department, however, were not at first content merely to "restructure" the bureaucracy. Some wanted to "defund leftist groups" (and subsidize conservative ones instead). Others were out to perform radical surgery and abolish their own jobs.
Dozens of conservatives had been recruited into the department by such appointees as Susan Phillips (sister of Conservative Caucus leader Howard Phillips), Charles Heatherly of the Heritage Foundation, and Daniel Oliver, a former executive editor of National Review. They were told that plans for abolishing the department were being readied.
"The game plan was that this was an 18-month hit-and-run assignment," recalled Scot Faulkner, one of the disillusioned recruits who ultimately left the department and was willing to talk to us. "We would spend six months tightening the place down, six months pushing the abolition bill through Congress, and six months shutting the place down." Faulkner said he was even given a timetable for the department's demise: January 1, 1984, was to be D-Day (D for Demolition).