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Many appointees had extensive experience in management or academia that they intended to use in paring down the department. Jim Lombard, a successful Florida businessman who became administrator for management services, described his forthright administrative style. "I would hold staff meetings with the career bureaucrats, and just to let them know things were going to be shaken up I would leave a dynamite plunger in the center of the table," he recounted.
Once, a career bureaucrat who had supervised dozens of employees attended, said Lombard. "His eyes opened wide as saucers and he asked, 'Is this an indication of your new management policy?' I replied, 'I'm afraid so.' The guy mumbled something and left shortly afterward." When we asked Lombard why he departed after only seven months on the job, he explained, "I was completely frustrated and realized I was not getting anywhere."
A number of conservative appointees recounted incidents that illustrate their initial zeal to dismantle the department. One said he was asked if he planned to pursue more RIFs (reductions in force), the government's euphemism for layoffs. "I said no, that we would instead be engaged in RWFs-reductions with force." Another appointee recalled, "Every time I was able to can a consultant, his personnel file would go on a spike mounted behind my desk-what I called my trophy wall."
Zeal soon gave way to frustration, however. One conservative detailed how the career bureaucrats worked to hold up his plans. "As we got into the guts of my operation, we heard screams of pain. We could have gotten rid of almost everyone there. Their counterattack was to tie my people down in meetings. We constantly heard complaints from the bureaucrats that we weren't 'interfacing' with them enough."
Meanwhile, in his first year in office the new Education secretary spent his time, not on Reagan's promised dismantling, but on rescuing the department from David Stockman's budget slashers.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) proposed to cut Bell's department by 30 percent, apparently taking Bell by surprise. "He knew the philosophy and the platform, and he was prepared for budget cuts," one close associate told the Washington Post. "But no one would have predicted the cuts would be so deep." Bell proceeded to make sure they wouldn't be so deep.
The administration finally asked Congress for $13.5 billion for the Education Department for fiscal 1981, $2.1 billion less than the Carter administration had advocated before it left office but only $600 million lower than the department's allotment of the taxpayers' money in fiscal 1980. Congress went along with cuts in some programs but increased funding for others. The final departmental budget was $14.8 billion, slightly more than the previous year's spending.
The Washington "educational-industrial complex" was of two minds over Terrel Bell. Many privately considered him a traitor to the cause, a "former" public educator who had joined an administration hostile to the department they'd fought so hard to establish. Others believed that Bell only reluctantly defended budget cuts of which he largely disapproved. "Anybody concerned about education should be grateful Ted Bell is down there," Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), chairman of an Education and Labor subcommittee in the House, told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm sure it's tough on Ted," seconded Robert D. Benton, Iowa's chief school administrator and an old friend of Bell's. "Many of the things being dismantled were put into place at his urging or when he was in authority before."
In August 1981, Bell unveiled his long-awaited plan to "dismantle" the Department of Education. The agency, he proposed, could be transformed into a "national educational foundation" similar to the National Science Foundation. The foundation would keep most of the Education Department's major programs, although cutting its budget to $8.8 billion for fiscal 1982. Another $1 billion in programs would be transferred to other agencies. Congress couldn't have been less excited, and one department official told us privately it was "a half-baked idea." It quickly died.
However, even conservative critics of Bell concede that little could have been done in the face of obstinate congressional opposition. The Senate Labor and Education Committee, although chaired by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, included such liberal Republicans as Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Robert Stafford of Vermont. Stafford at one point accused Reagan of wanting to have "the federal government turn its back on the nation's schoolchildren." "After the blitzkrieg of the first few months, it became trench warfare with Congress," one administration lobbyist told us. "Nothing was going to get past those guys unless it had a full-court White House press behind it." And that it didn't. Several conservative appointees went to the White House with their concerns. According to one, "We begged and pleaded for support in shutting the place down. It never materialized. They coddled us and said it wasn't on their list of priorities."
Finally, in May 1982, one frustrated appointee-Edward Curran, director of the National Institute of Education, the department's $50-million-a-year research arm-tried to take his concerns directly to President Reagan. He wrote a letter to Reagan in which he urged the immediate abolition of his grants-making agency, which he characterized, according to our sources in the Department of Education, as "wasteful and unnecessary" and ideologically tilted toward the left. Curran obtained a secret mail code used to route letters to the president's personal attention and dispatched his appeal. However, Curran deputy Larry Uzzell informed us that the letter was intercepted by Richard Darman, top aide to White House Chief-of-Staff James Baker. "Darman was instrumental in creating the National Institute of Education when he was working for Nixon's HEW secretary, Eliot Richardson," Uzzell told us. Darman alerted Bell to the transgression, and Curran was fired a few days later. There is no evidence that President Reagan ever saw Curran's letter.
While would-be dismantlers left or were told to leave the department, Bell continued his behind-the-scenes lobbying against budget cuts and vigorously defended his tenure in informal speeches before education groups. In one speech before the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of the State Boards of Education in March 1983, Bell said, "I've been raising my voice for a moderate position with respect to the budget and with respect to the federal role... I haven't been for abolishing the federal role, as many feel to abolish the department means."
And Bell was doing more than helping Congress keep Education spending high. At the same time as he floated the proposal to create a "national education foundation," Bell had suggested naming a commission to examine the status of American education. Bell outlined his plans in a four-page memorandum, dated July 6, 1981, which was sent to Craig Fuller, director of the White House's Office of Cabinet Administration. The Reagan team, Bell intoned, must "call attention to an alarmingly persistent decline in quality education." He reassured the White House that the commission would not ask for increased federal expenditures or an expanded federal role in education. He emphasized that reduced federal rules and paperwork would be "one means of enhancing quality in our schools."
With such assurances, the White House gave the go-ahead and even let Bell select most of the members. Overall, they represented a who's who of the national educational establishment: A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale University; Nebraska Education Commissioner Anne Campbell; lobbyist Robert Haderlein of the National School Boards Association; and, as chair of the commission, David Gardner, then president of the University of Utah and now president of the University of California system.
Almost all the members strongly opposed Reagan's call for abolishing the Education Department. "Haderlein's sole concern on the commission seemed to be to squash any mention of or support for tuition tax credits," former Education official Larry Uzzell told us. "Indeed, tax credits were conspicuous by their absence from the report."