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The U.S. Department of Education is now headed by a secretary who seems to distrust the concept of public education. Meanwhile, some Republicans remain committed to eliminating the department altogether. In 2002, D.T. Stallings traced the department’s controversial history.

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U.S. education has always been mostly a local affair, but over the course of the twentieth century the federal government’s engagement in schools grew. Some of the most significant federal laws providing funds for low-income students and guaranteeing equal education to kids with disabilities were already on the books before the Education Department was formed in 1979.

At first, when President Jimmy Carter gave education cabinet-level status in his administration, Stallings writes, the department didn’t do much. Its first secretary, Shirley Hufstedler, promised not to step on the toes of local education authorities and saw her role partly as raising awareness about “the good work classroom teachers do.”

Even so, Ronald Reagan saw the new department as a threat to local and state control and made moves to eliminate it. In fact, his larger goal was to get rid of all forms of federal school funding.

That didn’t happen. But Reagan’s first education secretary, Terrel Bell, did oversee the publication of a document that changed the course of U.S. education, the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.” With bleak warnings about a “rising tide of mediocrity,” the report kicked off a wave of education reform efforts.

Reagan’s second appointee, William Bennett, also questioned the need for the position he occupied and sought to reduce federal spending on student loans. At the same time, though, he pushed for a centralized core curriculum for all U.S. schools based on “the cornerstones of Western civilization.”

Stallings writes that the number of programs overseen by the department grew in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton years. Conservatives elected to Congress in the 1994 “Republican revolution” made another unsuccessful attempt to dismantle the department, but its activities only grew. The Clinton administration oversaw a big increase in the federal education budget, and George W. Bush added even more funding.

Then, in 2002, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act gave the federal government a big new role in holding schools accountable for students’ test results. It also spurred a huge new school choice movement.

The Education Department never swamped state and local education in the ways that opponents have feared over the years. The vast majority of school funding still comes from local and state sources. But the Education Department has found ways to leverage its power to strongly influence the way schools work. Since Stallings wrote in 2002, the Obama administration used funding incentives to encourage states to adopt the controversial Common Core standards. And now, the Trump administration has floated a much larger initiative to promote school vouchers for private schools. If that effort went as it’s been proposed, it might end up being the biggest move the Education Department has ever made.


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The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 83, No. 9 (May, 2002), pp. 677-683
Phi Delta Kappa International