The Wall Street Journal recently uncovered “billions in bloat,” confirming what we all suspected: There are hundreds of overlapping, duplicative, and wasteful federal programs. We could probably eliminate half of them and no one would notice. But President Obama nonetheless is piling on the pile, adding more waste. His 38.5% proposed increase in education spending is just one example of how Obama is proving he is no Ronald Reagan. His bloated budget for the federal Education Department was $49.1 billion in 2011. He wants to hike that to $68 billion in 2012.
A liberal Republican congressman from the Northeast wrote to President Reagan in 1981, asking for a meeting to discuss the future of the federal Education Department. “I hope it doesn’t have one,” the President penned in the margin.
In the 1980s, the press called the federal Education Department “ Fort Reagan.” It wasn’t a compliment. Then-Education Secretary Bill Bennett held the first meetings for homeschoolers. He introduced the first federal voucher bill. Bennett’s issues were the three Cs—content, character, and choice. He was a powerful advocate for parents. He even urged college grads to pay back their student loans!
When Ronald Reagan left office, the Soviet Union collapsed and the U.S. economy soared. All of those positive and revolutionary changes occurred, in part, because of President Reagan’s strong leadership.
In American education, however, nothing changed. The folks whom Bill Bennett called “the blob”—those liberal teacher union bosses, and the host of associations, interest groups, and press cohorts—had combined to prevent any meaningful change in our nation’s schools.
President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education warned us of a “rising tide of mediocrity.” That tide continued to swell through the Reagan years—and after.
The late Paul Weyrich, noted conservative political activist and commentator, and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, almost despaired of ever improving education, but he pointed to homeschooling as the conservatives’ one do-it-yourself success. Today, some 2 million American kids are getting a quality education at home—and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.
Liberals in Congress since the 1980s—Democrats and Republicans—stopped any move to disestablish the federal Education Department. We sometimes hear that Reagan failed to get rid of this wasteful and intrusive federal department. But Ronald Reagan was no dictator. Congress created this thing and Congress votes the money to continue it.
President Jimmy Carter created the federal Education Department as a sop to the bosses at the National Education Association (NEA). Carter was being challenged in the Democratic primaries in 1980 by the liberal uber-spender Ted Kennedy.
Carter promised the union bosses a department in exchange for their support at the Democratic convention. They bought, and bragged that the NEA had sent more left-leaning delegates to the Democratic convention than the state of California. (Any surprise that California now is also broke?)
It’s a bipartisan problem. President George H.W. Bush in 1989 convened an Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va ., shortly after being sworn in. He invited 50 state governors to come to Thomas Jefferson’s hometown and hammer out a national education policy. It was uninspired, unimaginative, and ultimately unsuccessful. Where in the Oath of Office he had just sworn did President Bush find authority to pursue such a patently unconstitutional goal?
The teachers unions whom Bush tried vainly to appease in 1989 would lead the charge to defeat him in 1992. Bill and Hillary Clinton, of course, did all they could to federalize education in America during their two terms.
They were succeeded by another President Bush. His No Child Left Behind education bill signaled a sharp left turn in policy. It was 90% Ted Kennedy, 10% George W. Bush, and 100% unconstitutional. It was also a huge waste of money. But No Child Left Behind did at least unify the country on education: Everybody hates it.
Here’s a challenge: Ask any parent, classroom teacher, community leader, editor, or reporter to cite a single thing accomplished by the federal Education Department. Is there any improvement for any school or any student that can be attributed to the existence of the federal Education Department?
I used to think the fact that school buses are all yellow was perhaps a useful federal innovation. But that edict was handed down before we had a federal department. And such a change—if it is indeed lifesaving—could have been accomplished as a one-shot deal. U.S. students attained their highest SAT scores (in 1963) without a federal Education Department. The United States got to the moon without a federal Education Department.
Now that President Obama has decided we don’t need to return to the moon, let’s bring federal spending down-to-earth. Let’s disestablish the federal Education Department.