An Education in Empire Building

(Page 4 of 4)

And so the bureaucracy lives on. After unveiling his education commission's report, Bell mounted a traveling road show to build support for his revitalized agency: 12 major "issue forums" held around the country to tap "grass-roots opinion." One top Department of Education official told us the forums only served to "create an atmosphere for a lot of weird ideas."

Another department employee who was flown to the concluding "national forum" in Indianapolis in December described the extensive preparations for the event. "I couldn't believe the money we were spending," he said. "I met people who had been there for two weeks already. Something like 280 people were flown in for what essentially was a giant pep rally for the NEA" (the politically powerful teachers' union).

The Indianapolis event marked the zenith of Terrel Bell's rise from caretaker of an agency slated for extinction to a man who, gushed Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, "holds the most important job next to the President of the United States." The White House had been transformed from an enemy of federal aid to schools to a reluctant champion of the educational establishment's agenda. The conservatives within the department either had been fired, had transferred themselves to other agencies, or had had their voices stilled by the permanent bureaucracy. Instead of overseeing its abolition, Terrel Bell presided over the renaissance of the Education Department.

Preparing to build on his successes, last November Bell issued his annual report to his assistant secretaries detailing the "high-priority objectives" he expected his subordinates to fill during the new fiscal year. The first five pages detail how the department should pursue "the promotion of more effective learning and the enhancement of excellence in education" by making the process of giving away government money simpler. The report asks top Department of Education officials to trumpet the findings of A Nation at Risk across the land, identifying "nationwide trends that indicate a critical need for action."

Any thought of President Reagan's original promise to abolish the Department of Education seems to have gone the way of the one-room schoolhouse and the McGuffey readers. "We're stuck with this place," a top department official conceded to us. "This building is made up of monuments to members of Congress. The only hope of toppling it would have been in the first 90 days of the administration, and the nomination of Bell scotched any prospect of that."

When we asked Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), retiring as ranking minority member of the House Education and Labor Committee, whether the federal foot-in-the-door of American education is here to stay, he agreed that it is. "The fervor for doing away with the department is not as strong as the opposition to its creation in 1979," he said. "Inertia has set in, and even some people who opposed it before will now resist change." In the administration's proposed Education budget for fiscal 1985, several programs are slated to receive increased funding-including federal planning of "master teacher systems" for the states, to reward "outstanding" teachers, and, incredibly, the start of a major effort to develop computer software for classroom use. Despite the hundreds of small firms creating educational software, Bell somehow sees a need for a federal role in the software market! "Much of the software leaves a lot to be desired," he opines. And so he has proposed a major "technology initiative" to develop computer programs for national use (see sidebar, page 44).

The department's latest budget fits right into the bureaucratic-political mold: after identifying a "problem," throw more money at it. But as psychologist Barbara Lemer pointed out recently, we already spend twice as much per student on education as do our highly touted competitors, the Japanese. In an article in the Public Interest she wrote, "If the quality of schooling could be assessed by resources and resource allocation alone, America would lead the world. Per capita public expenditures on education are higher in North America than anywhere else on earth."

Ironically, the Department of Education agrees. A just-released study found a steady decline in educational achievement in the last 20 years, while federal spending on elementary and secondary education increased more than 900 percent and total per-pupil spending in public schools went up nearly 450 percent.

Although the study had been done in conjunction with Bell's regional forums, material from it was not used at any of the meetings. Our sources inside the department confirm that Bell sat on the study for nearly two months to avoid embarrassment to education groups attending the Indianapolis forum.

When Bell finally took the wraps off the study at a late December press conference, he said he expected to get "kicked around" for publicizing the data. To the surprise of several department officials, the findings were released as an "incomprehensible" chart. When we asked one analyst close to the report about its release, he remarked, "I think they wanted people to hang it on their wall rather than understand the findings."

But the findings are simple enough, as are their implications for Washington's education bureaucracy. More money doesn't necessarily mean better education.

No wonder Washington bureaucrats intent on preserving their newly created empire were reluctant to publicize the report. But will its publication, even if deciphered accurately, halt the growth of the Department of Education? Probably not. If there is one lesson to be learned from the ill-fated drive to abolish the Department of Education, it is that government agencies, once established, acquire a momentum of their own that can stymie even the staunchest efforts to dismantle them. Terrel Bell, hired to abolish the Department of Education (or so we thought), soon embraced it as his own, promoting a "new era" of education in America, one in which the federal government figures as prominently as ever-and, if proposals in the works are seized on by the big spenders in Congress, one in which the federal education bureaucracy will play an even greater part.

John H. Fund is a reporter for syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Martin Wooster is a Washington editor of Harper's. This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism, Fund.

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