“Education” does not appear in the responsibilities of the federal government spelled out in the Constitution and its Amendments. Therefore it is no surprise that it was not a cabinet-level department until lately.
A Department of Education was created in 1867 but was moved to Office level one year later and then became a minor agency in the Department of the Interior. President Harding advocated a Department of Education and Welfare as early as 1923 but it never materialized. In 1939, it was named the “Office of Education” and was moved to the Federal Security Agency.
The Federal Security Agency became the cabinet-level Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953. HEW was part of the Reorganization Plan Number 1 of 1953, sent to Congress by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on March 12, 1953. Older folks will remember it under the acronym “H-E-W” as it existed from 1953 until 1979. Education was buried in this multi-function agency. HEW primarily collected educational data from across the country and managed the small amount of money allocated to states, mostly according to funding formulas based on populations.
But in 1979, a new stand-alone Department of Education was created. The rest of HEW was renamed the Department of Health and Human Services. Education was the only Federal Department created through presidential reorganization authority. At that time, the President was allowed to create a Department if neither house of Congress passed a legislative veto. This Presidential power ended after 1962. Later, the Supreme Court ruled that legislative vetoes were also unconstitutional.
President Ronald Reagan ran under the promise to close down the Department of Education but could not secure the votes with Democrats controlling the House of Representatives. In his 1982 State of the Union Address, he stated: “The budget plan I submit to you on February 8 will realize major savings by dismantling the Department of Education.” (Even as late as 1996, Senator Bob Dole promised in his presidential campaign, “We're going to cut out the Department of Education.”)
However, Reagan’s Secretary of Education Terrell Bell issued the 1983 “Nation At Risk” report. It declared that the state of U.S. education was so dire that if it had resulted from actions of a foreign power, we would consider it an act of war. Not only did this save the Department from being closed, from that point forward, education became a major campaign issue for national candidates.
The amount of federal money distributed by the U.S.D.E. to the states grew rapidly. Although many Congressmen still disliked the Department and viewed it as a federal infringement on state jurisdiction, President George W. Bush brought his version of outcomes-based education to Washington DC from Texas with the re-authorization of the ESEA, called No Child Left Behind. The rest has been a history of disaster.
Expanding its jurisdiction from just collecting data, the Department of Education now administers substantial federal funds, about seven percent of education funding, and has used it to extort state compliance with national educational policy under both Presidents Bush and Obama.
Despite ample evidence that the federal policies have narrowed the curriculum, failed to raise scores on independent assessments such as SAT, ACT and NAEP, and have de-professionalized teachers and increased drop-out rates, the federal Department of Education has avoided attempts to dismantle it despite the damage it does and the money it squanders to enforce federal reforms.
For those who are still pondering Terrell Bell’s rhetorical question about which foreign power is responsible, as an act of war, for our declining educational system, the answer is now clear: Texas and Chicago.