An Education in Empire Building

(Page 3 of 4)

When the commission's report, A Nation at Risk, was finally released in April 1983, it sounded the apocalyptic note now familiar to Americans, declaring that "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity." Yet as Hugh Joseph Beard, former deputy general counsel at the Department of Education, observed, it "criticized the methods but not the structure of the educational status quo."

The report remained silent on whether the Department of Education should be abolished. Meanwhile, it recommended "federal leadership" in a host of areas, including: "the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socio-economically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students, and the handicapped... collecting data, statistics... supporting curriculum improvement and research on teaching learning, and the management of schools, supporting teacher training in areas of critical shortage of key national needs." As Larry Uzzell pointed out to us, "The commission's areas of federal responsibility coincide exactly with the current mission of the Department of Education."

No dollar amounts were attached to any of the commission's recommendations, leading former department official Scot Faulkner to remark to us that "a Jesuit could say that the commission kept Bell's promise not to push for more money, but every page had dollar signs all over it." Denis P. Doyle, an education specialist with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, estimated "conservatively" that it would cost $13.5 billion to implement the most talked about commission reforms such as higher teacher salaries and a longer school day.

President Reagan tried to put the best possible face on the commission report. At a White House ceremony the day the report was issued, he announced that he would "continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer and abolishing the Department of Education"-none of which had been mentioned in the commission report.

Bell himself considered the report a "major victory." One Department of Education source said that the secretary "feels better about this than anything he's done since he came to town." As well he might. The report catapulted education several notches up the administration's list of priorities, and for several weeks much of the White House was engaged in "damage control" to rebut charges that heartless budget cuts had alone created the scholastic desert depicted in the report.

The emergence of education as a national issue also apparently induced Reagan to all but abandon any thought of abolishing Bell's job. "I've talked it over with the President," Bell told the New York Times. "And we're not going to be pushing for that, at least through 1984."

White House staff members went further in background briefings, saying there was "no question" that abolition was a pipe dream. "As long as the Department of Education is there, let's reprogram it-keep the department but change the agenda," one said. When reporters in June 1983 asked White House spokesman Larry Speakes if Reagan still wanted to kill the department, the reply was, "I wouldn't assume it either way."

Bell luxuriated in his new importance: rides on Air Force One with the president, appearances on Meet the Press, and standing ovations from the same groups that had previously scorned him. He also felt confident enough to disobey direct White House instructions and replace his general counsel, Daniel Oliver, while Oliver was on vacation in Greece. A former editor at the conservative magazine National Review, Oliver had pursued an agenda at the Department of Education that often proved a thorn in Bell's side. Prior to his ouster, Oliver drafted a memo upholding the view that the National Institute of Education was legally under the control of the National Council on Educational Research, which had been packed with conservative appointees such as chairman George Roche, president of Hillsdale College.

Contrary to Bell's wishes, Oliver wanted NIE operations to be directed more closely by the conservatively inclined NCER.

When the White House ordered Oliver restored after Bell had dismissed him, Bell threatened to resign and refused to go to work as long as Oliver was in the building. "The Secretary went home for two and a half days," one aide told a reporter. Oliver left and Bell returned. When asked about such ideological disputes, Bell said, "I think some of our conservative friends in the department are learning about some of the realities we face."

How successful were the conservatives in altering departmental policy? "If you want a streamlined, better-managed department, they've made some progress," former Education official Scot Faulkner responded to our questions. "But in terms of reversing federal intrusion in education, the Reagan years have been a zero."

From the traditional Republican goal of creating a more efficient and cost-effective government, the Reagan administration can point to some accomplishments:

  • The department has the best record of any federal agency in pruning its bureaucracy. From January 1981 to January 1984, the department's work force dropped from 7,200 to 5,400, a 28 percent reduction.
  • In an effort to cut red tape and give local school districts greater autonomy, 33 elementary and secondary programs were folded into "block grants" to be administered by the states at a savings of $250 million a year. By the department's own estimate, this change alone eliminated 170 of the 1,800 pages of regulations that govern its programs.
  • Hundreds of student-loan collectors were fired as the delivery of aid to college students was contracted out to private companies.
  • Congress went along with an administration suggestion to apply a "means test" in handing out aid to students from families earning $30,000 a year or more. Such measures, coupled with declining interest rates, helped halt the rapid growth of the Guaranteed Student Loan program, which, even after accounting for inflation, had more than quadrupled between 1978 and 1982.
  • The size and scope of the department's 10 regional offices were sharply pruned. Tom Tancredo, head of the regional office in Denver, told us that when he arrived, "There were 200 people here, and of that, 22 people were on my personal staff alone. We had guys making $40,000 a year who did nothing but clip newspapers." Today, Tancredo presides over an office of 70 employees and a personal staff of 6.

But conservative appointees in the department regard these achievements as shadow and not substance. "You could have the finest team of corporate managers money could buy in here, and it would raise the competency from abysmal to mediocre," Education official Hugh Joseph Beard told us shortly before he left the department. "You can't spend the money wisely unless you challenge the underlying assumptions of programs that actually work to lower educational skills."

And however much the Education bureaucracy has been cut back, it has not been abolished, as promised by the campaigning Reagan, and there is doubt that a significant effort was ever made to keep that promise. The savings from cost-effectiveness reforms have not even translated into cuts in the department's budget, which has increased by $1.3 billion in the Bell/Reagan years. The department that three years ago was supposedly on death row today stands paroled and even vindicated.

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