The Case for Education

GIVEN current behavior on Capitol Hill it was only a matter of time before the GOP aimed at the Department of Education. This week it did. Legislation before the House would abolish the Education Department, eliminate the secretary of education's Cabinet rank, and join it to the Labor Department.

Actually, as with any front-end business plan to downsize or privatize, one can find good arguments for eliminating Education. Joining the department with another could reduce some costs - though taking over the management of a complex program like student loans might be more costly than promised.

Moreover, Republicans hunting for overall Contract cuts can argue that abolishing the Department of Education fits with their belief in a minimalist federal role in schooling. Add to this that the department was born as a campaign promise by President Jimmy Carter to the teacher unions - and you have little love for it among House majority leaders. William Bennett and Lamar Alexander, who both served as secretary of education, say the department could be cut with no harm done. One can find some waste there - though perhaps less than in many government offices.

Yet, as with any eager plan to deconstruct, there are hidden downsides that often get accounted for too late. One large negative is the symbolism. Education, children, and learning still need to be given priority.

There is irony in the GOP legislation. It was, in fact, the same antifederalist conservatives who want to abolish the department now who tried to abolish it in 1981.

They were blocked by Terrel Bell, President Reagan's first secretary of education, who still thinks it is a bad idea. It was Mr. Bell who made education, for the first time, a national rallying cry - which then was picked up by both Democrats and Republicans. The cry was so important that George Bush ran for office as ``the education president.'' Was the issue a mistake?

Frankly, the department, which is already pretty minimalist, can achieve certain important goals. American schooling will always be primarily a local or state job. But a healthy department can assist and be a state watchdog. House Speaker Newt Gingrich hints that the House bill will make student loans easier to administer. It may make loans easier to default on.

Keeping Education was the right idea 15 years ago. It may still be.

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