“There was a time when the nation looked to the U.S. Department of Education for thought leadership about how to fix our broken public schools, but those days appear to have come and gone,” according to a new commentary in Education Week. All that’s needed to return big ED to its supposed glory days is a bit of re-jiggering, according to the piece. The commentary recommends reorganizing the department around four centers dedicated to modernizing classrooms, disseminating best practices, encouraging innovation, and international education.

If the plan sounds familiar, it should. A nearly identical scheme was used to justify the creation of the original U.S. Department of Education—back in 1867. Rep. Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts described the department as simple plan that would not “unnecessarily to concentrate power of the country here” in Washington. For $13,000 annually an education commissioner and four clerks would simply gather statistics, “nothing more than that” (p. 3046).  Behind this seemingly modest proposal, however, was a much grander agenda.

The National Teachers Association, predecessor of today’s National Education Association, and the National Association of School Superintendents were the driving forces behind the 19th Century education department. In 1866, Ohio Common Schools Commissioner E.E. White claimed, “Instead of being made a burrow for seedy politicians,” a national education bureau would “well-nigh revolutionize school instruction in this country” (pp. 184-85).  Arguing in favor of a national education department, Rep. Samuel W. Moulton of Illinois, claimed it would be “a pure fountain from which a pure stream can be poured upon all the States…a controlling head…by which all mischievous errors that have crept in may be pointed out and eradicated…”(p. 3044). So purifying American education, the national education bureau would restore the government “in perfect peace” and “in a more perfect form, even, than it has before existed” (p. 3046).

Perhaps Rep. Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, summed up the opposition best when he countered that “a bureau at an extravagant rate of pay, and an undue number of clerks collecting statistics…does not propose to teach a single child…its a, b, c’s.” He concluded that “to have a head without any body…would not…be of much utility” (p. 3048).

Not only was the original U.S. Department of Education a head without a body, it became a head without a permanent home just one year after its creation when Congress stripped of its independent status in 1868. As Sen. Samuel Hayakawa (R-CA) would explain more than a century later in his opposition to the current U.S. Department of Education, its 1867 predecessor “accomplished so little that within a short time, it was reduced to the status of a bureau in the Department of the Interior…this first failure is certainly not a good omen” (p. 359).

Given intensifying calls to rethink the U.S. Department of Education, the apparent failure of ED 2.0 should serve as yet another cautionary tale about looking to D.C. bureaucracies for “thought leadership.”

Vicki Alger is currently working on a book examining the history of the U.S. Department of Education.