TAKOMA PARK, MD. — AT the Piney Branch Elementary School, Laura Flicker's fourth- graders are scratching rocks with paper clips, pennies, and their fingernails to learn about the hardness of minerals.
While Mrs. Flicker conducts the class, four children are selected to work with assistant Ilene Catzva, who coaches them through the project in a hushed voice.
"My job," Mrs. Catzva later explains, "is to keep them 'on task,' engage them, talk to them, ask them things like, 'What will happen next?"' In any given class, she says, she'll focus on whomever she thinks need her help.
Catzva owes her job to a federal program to help low-income, low-achieving children do better academically. By itself, Chapter 1 is not a controversial program.
But, like all the 240 Department of Education programs aimed at everyone from kindergartners to homeless illiterate adults, its future is in question.
House Republicans want to dismantle the entire department.
It is too soon to tell how such dramatic changes would be felt at Piney Branch Elementary, or any other public school in America.
But the talk of eliminating the department has focused attention on what exactly the agency does and on the proper role of the federal government in an area that is the traditional domain of state and local government.
As much as anything, plans to abolish the agency underscore the extent to which Republicans want to dismantle Washington as it now exists. Though Education is the smallest Cabinet agency, the schooling of children remains one of the most important issues to voters, and thus the Republican moves are being closely watched from the classroom to the living room.
"The idea of deemphasizing or deprioritizing education at this particular time in the progress of civilization would be foolhardy," argues Education Secretary Richard Riley.
The GOP elimination plan in the House would send some parts of the Department of Education to other agencies and repeal others altogether, consolidating the funds into lump-sum payments to the states for use on any education purpose.
The powerful Christian Coalition, in its 10-point "Contract With the American Family" - which has been endorsed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich - wants to go one step further: Take the department's funding and transfer it directly "to families and local school boards," bypassing the state departments of education.
In fact, the Department of Education's role in primary and secondary schools is relatively limited now. Almost half the agency's $33 billion budget goes to subsidize higher education, largely through student loans and grants. Under a House Education Task Force plan, that division would be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Another 40 percent of the budget goes for elementary and secondary education programs - such as Chapter 1 (also called Title 1) and other grant programs for special-needs children, safe and drug-free schools, parent involvement, and teacher training. These are the programs whose funds the task force would group into "no strings attached" block grants to the states, to be monitored by HHS. Decisions on how the money is spent would be made by people closer to the need.
The department also has its own civil-rights division to monitor mandatory busing programs and handle discrimination complaints, and a research and data-collection division that even critics of the department say is vital to understanding education trends. Both of these functions would shift to other government agencies, says the task force.
In dollar terms, the task force would shave about $5 billion, or about 15 percent, off current department spending - some of which would come from a decrease in bureaucracy, says a House Republican aide. The House budget resolution would cut spending by about 30 percent. The Senate budget resolution would cut K-12 spending by about 30 percent, higher education by less, and wouldn't dismantle the agency.
Secretary Riley calls efforts to close his department a search for a "political trophy." In an interview, he notes efficiency gains made since he took over, including reductions in personnel and plans to eliminate and consolidate programs. It is the smallest Cabinet agency in number of employees (5,000) but not budget.
Talk of abolishing the department has burbled along almost since the day it was established in 1979 under President Carter, who sought to fulfill a campaign promise to special-interest groups by separating out most (but not all) of the education functions from the old Health, Education, and Welfare Department.
A House Republican aide captures the prevailing mood: Merely cutting back isn't enough, he says, because "it's like a weed. If you trim it, it will grow back."
At its core, the department suffers from an inherent conflict. While polls show that Americans agree education is a top national priority, control of education is constitutionally mandated at the state level, with strong local input. So in a way, a federal department of education can't win. If it takes an activist role - especially in creating anything that might be construed as a "national curriculum" - people cry that it's usurping a local function. If it doesn't take initiative, people ask why it's necessary.
Secretary Riley doesn't disagree that his agency has been virtually demonized by conservatives, which he acribes in part to misinformation and to "a tremendous cynicism about the federal government." He adds: "Where children are involved, people are of course more sensitive than they are about anything else, and I respect that."
The view from Piney school
Back at Piney Branch, a racially and financially diverse school in suburban Montgomery County, the big political battles going on just a few miles away in Washington feel several planets away.
"So many of the things [we get] are from the federal Department of Education, but I can't tell you exactly what's funded by the state and what's federal," says Principal Tim Riggott.
That's because any federal funds Piney Branch sees are funneled through the state, then the county. What he does know, he says, is that "we can't afford to lose a single dollar. The fat is gone."
At the county level, Chapter 1 coordinator Joe Yuhas also has no major beefs with the federal agency. In fact, he says, the department has encouraged flexibility in the use of Chapter 1 money in recent years - allowing, for example, the combining of such funds with other grant money in hiring additional teacher aides.
But stories of conflict with education bureaucrats are a staple among some teachers. The head of the New York State School Boards Association, Louis Grumet, speaks of a conflict with the Department of Education over policies regarding disabled children. In Virginia, Gov. George Allen (R) has sued the federal government over school discipline requirements.
Suspicion of the department has led some governors (Virginia and New Hampshire) and at least one state legislature (Montana) to back away from federal money in the Goals 2000 program, which supports states' education reform.
* Next: Goals 2000 and why Christian conservatives are so opposed to it.