As parents face the start of another school year, they are preoccupied with thoughts of what their children need - pencils, paper, notebooks, haircuts, new clothes, and the like. Nowhere on most parents' lists of things their kids need to grow into educated citizens, however, is the US Department of Education.
Our national experiment with a federal education agency is approaching the 20-year mark. And after two decades, the results are pretty clear. Since the department was created in 1979, there has been no improvement in test scores, no improvement in literacy rates, and little sign that the billions of dollars poured into education by Washington have helped anyone. Public schools, especially in inner cities, often are violent "Work-Free Drug Zones," breeding grounds for crime but not for learning.
The Department of Education will cost taxpayers $33.5 million in fiscal year 1998, after the Republican Congress and President Clinton worked together to increase the Department's budget by 12 percent over 1997. It will spend this year more than double what it spent when it was created, when its sponsors were promising the federal government's role in education would not increase.
In fact, proponents argued at the time that creating a Department of Education would actually streamline the federal government in that area.
It is worth studying exactly how the Department of Education came in to being in the late 1970s, since it gives a clearer picture why the department's doors remain open, despite the rhetoric about shutting down unnecessary agencies that accompanied the 1994 elections.
In 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter pledged to create a federal education department if elected.
He made that promise more to the National Education Association (NEA) than to the public, and it won him that union's support.
As president, when he tried to make good on it, Congress refused to go along, narrowly rejecting attempts to add another bureaucracy to Washington's mix.
The idea of creating a federal education agency was considered so monstrously bad that even The Washington Post and The New York Times ran editorials denouncing the plan. The Post called it "a wretched idea." It warned that "by sheer bureaucratic momentum, it would inevitably erode local and state control over public schools." Predicted another editorial: "A Department of Education, if such unfortunately is enacted into law, will become a gigantic single-minded lobbying outfit. It will be the NEA writ large."
Congress took up the question once again in 1979, and this time it barely squeaked through. The House of Representatives voted 210 to 206 to approve legislation to draw a new Department of Education out of the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. A shift of two votes would have meant a tie, and the measure would have failed.
Two votes. Surprisingly, two very junior Republican House members, who 15 years later would orchestrate their party's revolutionary takeover of Congress, voted that day in favor of creating a federal Cabinet-level Department of Education. They were Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, now House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader respectively.
In light of this history it should surprise nobody that the current leaders of the House and Senate have done nothing to advance the idea of eliminating or even paring back the Education Department. The amazing thing is that they first supported it.
It's even more amazing, considering the evident failure of Washington's role in education since that day in 1979, that Mr. Gingrich today ignores this evidence and chastises his colleagues for failing to do the same. Just last November he was quoted saying, "There was a long period when Republicans thought education was a local issue and didn't realize it was a national issue."
But is it really a national issue that requires federal oversight? After two decades of testing, can he, or anyone else, point to any palpable national academic achievements that stem from having created a US Department of Education?
About all that we can point to is a top-heavy, centralized agency whose bureaucratic torpor stifles innovative and much-needed reform, a monolith which foists unpopular and unworkable programs such as bilingual education on schools nationwide, a goliath which wastes frivolously tax dollars that should be spent prudently at the local level.
It's time to do for education what we did for welfare - get the federal government out of it. Let the nation, and not the nation's capital, handle this issue.
* Max Schulz is an adjunct scholar with the Frontiers of Freedom Institute in Arlington, Va.