A History Of The Department Of Education

Jun 24, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House is considering a massive reorganization of the federal government with a particular focus on agencies that deal with food, social services and education. The plan was announced on Thursday. And one part that stood out to us was the proposal to merge the Department of Education with the Labor Department to focus on workforce readiness.

Now President Trump is not the first Republican to hope to abolish the Department of Education, just the latest. We wanted to know more about the history, so we called Alyson Klein of Education Week, and she started by pointing out that many of the Education Department's programs predate its creation by President Carter in 1980.

ALYSON KLEIN: Many of them were started in 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program. And that really focused the federal role on the poorest kids, making sure poor kids got their fair share of resources. And then in the mid-'70s, Congress also passed legislation to help students in special education. And they passed legislation for higher education, also before the department was created. So basically, what President Carter did was just elevate these programs to the Cabinet level and really just give them an equal seat at the table with things like state and defense.

MARTIN: So you know, as soon as the department was created as a standalone, Ronald Reagan, who was running for president, began to criticize it. What was his criticism?

KLEIN: Well, he saw it as basically a giveaway to the national teachers' unions. And he also saw it just kind of as a big expansion of the federal role in education, which he felt like really should be at the state level.

MARTIN: But he didn't abolish it. Why not?

KLEIN: Well, there just wasn't support in Congress for getting rid of the agency. He was able to cut it down. He did cut its budget quite a bit. But then in 1983, the Reagan administration released a report called "A Nation At Risk," which called into question whether or not American schools were preparing students for the workforce as well as our foreign competitors, which is still an issue we hear about today. So that came out in 1983, and then that kind of quelled all of this talk, for at least a while, about getting rid of the Department of Education.

MARTIN: A number of Republicans have opposed the department through the years. I mean, people might remember that Rick Perry, who's now the energy secretary, called for eliminating the department when he was running in the Republican presidential primaries. The Republican Party Platform, which nobody reads, but nevertheless has called for it to be abolished at various points through the years. You know, why is that?

KLEIN: I would say it's a philosophical argument. It's the idea - Republicans would say the idea of having this sort of federal bureaucracy involved in something that they really feel like is a state-level issue is just not a good thing. Newt Gingrich, when he was speaker of the House, one of his proposals was getting rid of the Department of Education. And he said that we didn't - he didn't think we needed a federal department of homework checkers.

MARTIN: But all Republicans don't feel that way because people will remember, of course, that George W. Bush gave the department a big role in his No Child Left Behind initiative, which was, like, a signature domestic policy initiative of his. And what was the impact on the department of No Child Left Behind?

KLEIN: Sure. So No Child Left Behind really grew the federal role even more than we had seen before in K-12 education because it required, for the first time, states to test students in grades three through eight and once in high school. And they had to break out the results of those tests to show how English language learners and students in special education and students of color and poor kids were doing relative to their peers. So it was seen as sort of a civil rights law. And that hasn't gone away. Even under President Trump, those tests are still in place.

MARTIN: So what can you tell us about the reaction so far to this idea of merging the Education Department with the Labor Department and focusing it on kind of the workforce and workforce readiness?

KLEIN: So in Congress, it is breaking down on partisan lines. Virginia Foxx, who's the chairwoman of the House Education Committee, put out a supportive statement. So we'll see if she moves forward on this. But Democrats were really quick to condemn this proposal, and many educators agree with them, and they are very worried that having the department just focus on workforce readiness would brush aside some of the other things that the Education Department does, like looking out for students' civil rights.

MARTIN: That is reporter Alyson Klein. She is an assistant editor at Education Week, and she was here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much.

KLEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.