Happy 40th Birthday, Department of Education
The poster on the office wall is faded, but not so our memories of the day it commemorated or the struggle to make it happen. Monday, May 4, 2020, marks the 40th anniversary of the official opening of the Cabinet-level U.S. Department of Education. It was a historic day in the history of public education in America to be sure, but it was also a special day for us personally as we, working for President Carter, had both been intimately involved in crafting and passing the legislation that created the department.
“The time has passed when the federal government can afford to give second-level, part-time attention to its responsibilities in American education,” President Carter said while signing the bill on Oct. 17, 1979. “If our nation is to meet the great challenges of the 1980s, we need a full-time commitment to education at every level of government -- federal, state, and local.”
But giving education a seat in the Cabinet Room did not happen easily. It came, instead, after a tough legislative fight, one involving aggressive lobbying on both sides, as well as intense and bitter turf battles. The politics of turf brought together strange bedfellows from the right and the left, and eventually cost a prominent Cabinet secretary his job. The hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” put the turf politics of our nation’s founding to music: “No one really knows how the game is played. The art of the trade. How the sausage is made…you need to be in the room where it happened.”
We’ll come back to the sausage-making in a moment, a process in which we were active participants in Jimmy Carter’s White House.
First and foremost, the creation of the Department of Education is a story about leadership. It is a story about giving voice to the immense role education plays in the economic and cultural development of our country, and in the health of our democracy.
Jimmy Carter came to the White House keenly aware that education achievement levels in the United States were not nearly what they needed to be, and that equal access to a high-quality education remained an unfulfilled goal for way too many people in our country, especially racial and ethnic minorities and low-income citizens.
Accordingly, Carter put the full weight of his office into the effort to create the department, starting with lengthy and at times tense meetings over the actual design of the proposed new agency. First he had to deal with the objections of the then-Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joe Califano, who was faced with losing the “E” in his sizable portfolio.
For two years, in meetings large and small, with members of Congress and outside interest groups, Carter hammered away at the need for such a change in how the federal government was organized in the education arena. It should not have surprised anyone that he would invest so much of his time and political capital into passage of legislation creating the Department of Education.
Back in Georgia, Jimmy Carter’s first elective office was as a member of the Sumter County Board of Education, to which he was elected in 1956, and on which his father had served previously. Recognize, as well, that Carter is a proud product of public education -- elementary school through the Naval Academy. As governor, he pushed the cause of public schools, understanding as he did that Georgia could only flourish -- as it has -- by investing in its citizens’ skills.
Enacting the enabling legislation proved difficult. It passed a key committee vote in the House by a single vote, and in the full House by only four. In doing so, it had to overcome active and intense opposition from many big city Democrats who were close to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which fought it mainly because the legislation was backed by its rival, the National Education Association (NEA). Meanwhile, fear of creeping federal control animated opposition among Republicans. Others, including the children’s lobby and constituency groups opposed it because they feared their interests wouldn’t be accorded the same influence they enjoyed within HEW -- fears stoked by Secretary Califano.
At one point, Califano dispatched Hale Champion, his top deputy, to make the case against the proposed new department to Vice President Walter Mondale. After hearing him out, the vice president responded, “Well, Hale, I hear what you’re saying. But you’ve got a problem. You see, the guy down the hall [pointing toward the Oval office], the fellow who appointed you to your current job, well, he thinks creating a separate Department of Education is a pretty good idea. And you know what? You should probably think so, too!”
But Califano didn’t give up, even as the legislation was being debated on Capitol Hill, and as the president, vice president and members of the White House staff were working hard to secure the votes necessary for passage. Finally, by July of 1979, Carter had had enough and he requested—and obtained -- Califano’s resignation.
So the once sleepy Office of Education, which dated back to President Andrew Johnson’s time, became, under Jimmy Carter the cabinet-level Department of Education. But while elevating education to cabinet-level status at the federal level was an important step, it has not been enough. Establishing national standards, and encouraging the use of sophisticated assessments of achievement have also not moved the needle much -- the U.S. still lags behind other modern economies on international measurements of mathematics knowledge, and we’re right in the middle when it comes to reading. According to research conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), graduates of U.S. universities do not fare well when compared to their peers in other industrialized countries. Just as troubling are the countless reports and overwhelming evidence that way too many Americans lack basic knowledge about our own country’s history, its economy, or even its fundamental civic institutions and processes.
As a nation we must think differently about education, and we need to invest more in it. But that will not happen without national leadership. A structural reorganization to consolidate education programs created a bully pulpit, gave direct access to the president, but it did not guarantee the caliber of leadership needed to improve the quality of education in our public schools and our institutions of higher education.
We need teachers who are well-prepared in their subjects and who possess an ability to engage students; we need school and district administrators who focus on, and are vigilant about, outcomes; we need businesses to invest more in workforce development. And we must do much more to encourage students to realize that education -- or a lack thereof -- will determine their life’s destiny.
It all starts at the top, in the Department of Education. Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale both knew that -- and still do. To those who complain about the expense, Mondale had a beautiful answer. As far back as 1974, when he was a young U.S. senator and Carter was wrapping up his one term as governor of Georgia, Mondale put it this way: “Education is expensive. If we want good teachers, we must pay them. If we want decent facilities, we must pay for them. When we deal with some children, whom I call children of a cheated background, who come to school with tremendous handicaps that they have accumulated through no fault of their own, it is frightfully expensive to give them a chance. Yet it is still the best investment we can make.”