Education Needs Cabinet-Level Status

By Bell, Terrel H. | Vocational Education Journal, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Education Needs Cabinet-Level Status


Bell, Terrel H., Vocational Education Journal


When I was being interviewed for secretary of education in 1981, Ronald Reagan and I agreed that cabinet-level status for education in the federal government's executive branch held too much potential for federal control of our schools. We decided to design a more appropriate agency to host a limited federal role in education.

We concluded that an independent foundation-type structure would be most appropriate. Foundations, such as the National Science Foundation, make grants to educational institutions. They do not take charge and direct the affairs of academia. We decided to reduce the size of this newly created cabinet agency and transform it into a more benign National Education Foundation.

We agreed that I would be in charge of this task since I had served previously as U.S. commissioner of education in the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) and was familiar with the federal statutes, roles and responsibilities. Soon after taking office, I proceeded to downsize the Department of Education from 7,800 to 5,200 employees. After I had drafted our proposed bill and cleared it with the president and his cabinet, I went to Senate majority leader Howard Baker to persuade him to support us. (We decided to introduce my bill in the Senate since we had a Republican majority.)

Despite what I considered to be a very persuasive case, Howard Baker firmly opposed me. He said education needed to be represented in cabinet meetings. With one of every five U.S. citizens engaged in education either as an employee or student, this enormous enterprise touches all aspects of our lives. Baker reasoned that the president and other members of his cabinet needed the input of an education secretary.

A very lame argument that often comes from those who have advocated abolishing the Department of Education (ED) is that Congress could make provisions for an education advisor on the White House staff. Anyone close to affairs in Washington knows how pitiful this gesture would be. No one pays any attention to these so-called advisors. They are tucked away in a remote location in the old executive office building and are largely ignored not only by the president but also by his senior White House staff members. The plain truth is that education will lose its power and advocacy in Washington and on a national level once we shut down ED and eliminate the cabinet-level position for education.

Another argument is that education is primarily a state and local function and that the federal government has no role to play in this arena. If this foolish logic is to prevail, why then do we need a commerce department for business or a labor department to promote workers rights?

There is no function as essential to the nation's future as is education. …

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