Public Law 96-88, signed by President Jimmy Carter in October 1979, formally established the U.S. Department of Education in 1980. In recognition of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the department, please join AEI as we examine lessons learned about the crafting of federal education policy from the department’s first quarter century.
What are the structural and political limitations on educational leadership at the federal level? How has education policy evolved in the last twenty-five years? What is the most productive way for a secretary to work with the White House and Congress? These questions and others will be examined by former secretaries of education William Bennett, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Rod Paige. Andrew Rotherham, former education advisor to President Bill Clinton, will join in the conversation. AEI director of education policy studies Frederick M. Hess will moderate.
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William Bennett, Claremont Institute
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Senator Lamar Alexander
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Rod Paige, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Andrew Rotherham, Education Sector
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Frederick M. Hess, AEI
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The Department of Education Twenty-Five Years LaterPresident Jimmy Carter signed legislation in October 1979 that formally established the U.S. Department of Education in the spring of 1980. In recognition of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the department, AEI hosted a panel discussion to examine lessons learned about the crafting of federal education policy from the department’s first quarter-century. What are the structural and political limitations on educational leadership at the federal level? How has education policy evolved in the last twenty-five years? What is the most productive way for a secretary to work with the White House and Congress? These questions and others were examined by former secretaries of education William Bennett, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Rod Paige. Andrew Rotherham, former education advisor to President Bill Clinton, joined in the conversation.
Woodrow Wilson Center
More than twenty years after the Department of Education released A Nation at Risk, our system of education and our nation are still at risk. From 2000-2004, three consecutive external audits were conducted for the Education Department, the results of which led to the concept and creation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). President George W. Bush, Congress, and congressional staff members especially deserve praise for their unwillingness to yield to political pressures and for achieving compromise on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2002. While too often the important business of education is negatively affected and even hindered by political agendas and bickering in Washington, this landmark legislation--which created NCLB--is the key to improve the achievement of American school children and giving them the education system they deserve.
The Honorable Lamar Alexander
United States Senate
The Department of Education has been formally established and involved in national policymaking for twenty-five years, yet it remains a mystery how the federal government can or should act to improve local schools like those in rural Tennessee. Has the creation of a cabinet-level department improved the state of education in America? Perhaps. But these modest improvements could have been achieved within a different organizational structure. Before education was elevated to a cabinet-level department, there existed a federal Office of Education with a national education advisor. This person was able to advocate for the cause of education nationally while advising the president personally, similar to the role of a national security advisor--a more sensible organizational arrangement.
America has devised a successful model for higher education, one that has produced world experts in every academic field. Colleges and universities are generously funded by the federal government but are given institutional autonomy, which creates a marketplace for competition and excellence. This successful system could serve as an example for the structure of K-12 education.
Since the department’s establishment there have been those in Washington who have wanted to abolish or restructure it. The American system of education is decentralized, unlike that of many countries, so federal involvement is not as necessary as it is in many other systems. Government influence in education should come primarily from the state and local levels, making the most important role for a secretary of education that of a national advocate. Using the bully pulpit to spotlight successful programs nationwide is one of the most important jobs a secretary can perform.
Research shows that one of the most important factors that influences a child’s learning is the effectiveness of his or her teacher. In fact, the consequences of a good teacher on a child’s ability to read are astonishing; the consequences of a bad teacher are appalling. Thus, educational accountability for teachers and schools is the key to improving education and making our system one based upon performance.
The Department of Education is a federal office fraught with irony; its opponents have argued for its abolition, but the American education system has improved since it was established. Not only has federal funding increased dramatically in the past twenty-five years, but there is now a national focus on education and accountability that did not exist before it was created. A Nation at Risk, the 1983 landmark report on the state of education in America, was commissioned by the Department of Education under secretary Terrel Bell, and it created an impetus for improving standards that carried into the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the much-discussed 2002 reauthorization--the No Child Left Behind Act.
Though the movement toward standards and accountability has rapidly progressed in recent years, the department itself has not been adequately equipped to manage the increased focus or requirements. The most notable dearth of knowledge is in the area of research, which receives too little attention within the department. Usable research and data are the most important tools the government can use when designing new programs, and unfortunately, the department itself is incapable of performing this valuable function.
AEI researcher Morgan Goatley prepared this summary.