US Department of Education, down but not out

The Reagan administration's relationship with the Department of Education is like that of a principal who wants to expel a student . . . but can't. So when school doors swing open this fall, no one is certain whether the department will tiptoe, swagger, or just walk back into the classroom.

Ever since taking to the presidential hustings, Ronald Reagan has vowed to close down the department. He singled it out as the most representative of all that was wrong with a bloated and intrusive federal bureaucracy.

Two years into the conservative President's tenure, the rambling agency remains in place. Opposition to its closing is strong enough that, barring any dramatic shift of power in the upcoming November congressional elections, observers see no chance of its abolition until after the 1984 presidential elections.

Both proponents and opponents of the department say a return in 1984 of four more years of the Reagan administration, or a like-minded one, would be tantamount to termination of the federal role in education. A Democratic administration would mean a reprieve for the department.

A look at conflicting demands being made on the department highlights the sense of impasse and drift that surrounds it. For the next two years, more of the same is predicted.

* The Reagan administration: Though partially thwarted by Congress, it still wants to get the federal government out of the business of education. The administration is pursuing this goal by means of severe funding cuts, key personnel changes, attempts to rewrite department regulations, and ultimately, the establishment of a noncabinet-level education foundation to replace the existing department.

* The Congress: Neither the Democratic-controlled House nor the Republican-controlled Senate is ready to permit the most recently created cabinet-level agency to become the Titanic of the federal fleet. Both chambers have drawn the line on further administration budget cuts.

In the case of student loans for higher education, Congress has restored funds the administration wanted to eliminate. And in the area of handicapped education, not one cent in cuts has been allowed, with both houses asserting their right to impose a congressinal veto on any regulatory changes before they take effect.

* The states: Regulatory relief, not funding cutbacks, is widely sought. Without a doubt the states look forward to regaining more autonomy from federal regulations. In most instances the block-grant approach is favored over categorical aid.

But there are strong reservations from big-city constituencies that see block grants diverting funds to suburban school districts. Many major urban centers need more from the federal government than a proportionate share of the 8 percent it contributes to the nation's total education budget - most of the money reaches cities from the federal government through categorical grants.

* The education community: From preschool to postgraduate study, this is the most Balkanized of all the components making demands on the Department of Education. If professional educators are to salvage a significant role for the Department of Education, issues of equity may have to be subordinated to issues of quality. A quasi-consensus appears to be evolving that federal educational policy cannot continue to be dominated by the goal of equalizing access and expanding educational opportunity for the needy (minorities, the handicapped, women).

* Special interests: For these groups, to keep or not to keep a Department of Education hinges on whether the department supports or blocks the attainment of a particular educational, philosophical, or political objective. Interests range from parental concern that schoolchildren will be in competition with public-works departments (and that the roadbuilders will win) to forces that object to federal intrusion in such highly visible areas as busing, bilingual education, and prayer in schools.

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