If we want to solve education woes, “We don’t need smaller government; we need smarter government,” according to a recent Education Week commentary. Specifically, a re- re-organized U.S. Department of Education is the cure for what ails broken public schools. Before going back to the drawing board, however, perhaps a little history would help.

Arguing in favor of a Department of Education back in 1867, Sen. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois insisted that had we “had a department of education from the beginning, I believe it would have been one of the best bureaus or departments which the Government could have had” (p. 1842). Congress, however, demoted the department just one year later in 1868 because it fell far short of the mark.

More than 100 years later in 1979, 20th Century education department advocate Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT) insisted, “The new Department will be the most streamlined department in the Federal Government” (p. 683). His ally Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA) added that in re-establishing a Department of Education, “I will be very optimistic that we can enter a new era of cooperation, understanding, and excellence in our educational systems” (p. 704). Excitement about a federal education department, however, was not limited to Democrats.

Among Republicans voting in favor of the unsuccessful precursor bill establishing a Department of Education in 1978 was Sen. Howard Baker (R-TN), who would later serve as Senate Majority Leader and White House Chief of Staff under President Ronald Reagan—an outspoken proponent of abolishing the department. Sen. Baker declared that a federal education department “marks a new and exciting day for education in the United States. I believe it will help usher in an era of improved coordination and cooperation in education programs across the country” (p. 379). Joining him in praising the 1978 education department legislation was Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS). “Every day, millions and millions of children…sit in classrooms across America…I believe it is our responsibility to see that these young citizens receive the best education we can provide, and I feel that a new Department of Education is one way toward that goal” (pp. 378-79). Of course, less than 20 years later during his 1996 presidential campaign, Sen. Dole would take a different position, declaring, “We’re going to eliminate the Department of Education. We don’t need it in the first place. I didn’t vote for it in 1979. …I didn’t favor it. When it started, I voted against it. It was a tribute…after President Carter’s election to the National Education Association.”

Arguing against creating a federal Department of Education in 1867, Sen. Garrett Davis of Kentucky stated, “When this measure was first introduced, I hardly thought that its patrons were serious. It seems to me more of a device to create officers and patronage and to make drafts on the Treasury than anything else” (p. 1843). History seems to have proven Sen. Davis right.

From 1939 to 1966 alone there were nearly 100 government reorganization proposals affecting about 240 federal agencies and departments (p. 285)—not to mention the more than 130 U.S. Department of Education reorganization bills introduced from 1908 to 1975 (p. 87). After reviewing the various related studies, commissions, and task force reports undertaken throughout the 20th century, Sen. Samuel Hayakawa (R-CA) observed, “So far…I have not a single study that suggests the creation of a Department of Education at this time would be a desirable step” (p. 359). Further, absent such evidence, he concluded, “It seems to me that the creation of a Department of Education…would simply be a bureaucratic escape from reality” (p. 361). Similarly, Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R-NM) said in his opposition to establishing the current U.S. Department of Education, it’s time to realize “that bureaucratic bigness is not bureaucratic goodness” (p. 301). Republicans were not alone in their opposition, either.

In their bi-partisan opposition statement against the current U.S. Department of Education, Reps. John Erlenborn (R-IL), Benjamin Rosenthal (D-NY), Peter Kostmayer (D-PA), John Wydler (R-NY), Clarence Brown (R-OH), Paul McCloskey (R-CA), Thomas Kindness (R-OH), Robert Walker (R-PA), Arlan Stangeland (R-MN), M. Caldwell Butler (R-VA), Jim Jeffries (R-KS), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Wayne Grisham (R-CA) called the proposed education department an unaccountable “education-industrial complex,” adding, “Those who stand to gain by this Department are the NEA and the other professionals representing education groups…Children will not benefit” (p. 1173). The Washington Post and the New York Times concurred.

“Contrary to widespread belief, the proposed department is not chiefly an issue of reorganizing or consolidating federal education efforts,” said the Post (pp. 350-51). “One of the principal risks of creating a separate education department is that it will become the creature of its clientele. That clientele would not necessarily be the schoolchildren and their parents affected by the federal government’s education programs. Much more probably it would be the National Education Association…In a way, this would be giving them their own department” (p. 369).

Likewise, the New York Times editorialized that creating a federal education department “would keep a campaign promise; it would tickle the education world’s sense of importance…But it is hard to see beyond that what such a reorganization would do to benefit actual education” (p. 369).

Nearly 150 years of federal tinkering has not materially improved public education. For all the promises of bigger, smarter government, in the case of the U.S. Department of Education, history doesn’t exactly square with the hype. 

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