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What does it take for a Republican president to effect real, lasting change? Was President Ronald Reagan a failure beyond the Cold War and the economy? Reagan had two overwhelming Electoral College victories. He did so by assembling a coalition of three different kinds of “conservatives:” religious (social), economic, and security. In the end, Reagan’s eight years in office were marked by big substantive policy benefits to the economic and national security wings, with minimal substantive benefits to religious/social conservatives.
Consider the policy area of education. Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 on reversing the brand new elevation of a Department of Education to cabinet level. He failed in this and failed in effecting any substantive reform of education, so failed to even slow the left’s mark through the institutions and seizure of mind share. President Reagan left us a legacy of ashes in education policy.
President [Eisenhower] then remarked that soon after Pearl Harbor, he was engaged in an operation which required him to have certain information which he was unable to obtain from the Navy, i.e. the strength the Navy had left in the Pacific. The President also noted that the U.S. fought the first year of the war in Europe entirely on the basis of British intelligence. Subsequently, each Military Service developed its own intelligence organization. He thought this situation made little sense in managerial terms. He had suffered an eight-year defeat on this question but would leave a legacy of ashes for his successor.
President Eisenhower, the successful commander of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, was unable to effect basic structural reorganization in a set of bureaucracies at the heart of his authority as commander-in-chief and foreign policy leader. He tried for eight years, by his own account, and failed. This was shortly after the creation of the CIA and not long after the reorganization of the armed forces of the United States under the Department of Defense. So, a Republican president at the height of his constitutional authority and personal competency was confounded by federal bureaucracy in the 1950s. I take the “legacy of ashes” and the baseline of Eisenhower’s experience to consider Ronald Reagan’s legacy beyond Cold War and economic policy success.
President Reagan won the 1980 election 489 to 49, and then won reelection in 1984 525 to 13. In doing so, he repeated the success of the last elected Republican, Richard Nixon: (1968: 301 to 191, 1972: 520 to 17). If any president had an electoral mandate, Reagan did. He ran on a platform that made a number of claims about education, with repeal of the Department of Education as the headline. Considering these claims helps trace the roots of his failure.
Republican Platform: A Preamble
The Republican Party convenes, presents this platform, and selects its nominees at a time of crisis. America is adrift. Our country moves agonizingly, aimlessly, almost helplessly into one of the most dangerous and disorderly periods in history.
This platform addresses many concerns of our Party. We seek to restore the family, the neighborhood, the community, and the workplace as vital alternatives in our national life to ever-expanding federal power.
We affirm our deep commitment to the fulfillment of the hopes and aspirations of all Americans—blacks and whites, women and men, the young and old, rural and urban.
For too many years, the political debate in America has been conducted in terms set by the Democrats. They believe that every time new problems arise beyond the power of men and women as individuals to solve, it becomes the duty of government to solve them, as if there were never any alternative. Republicans disagree and have always taken the side of the individual, whose freedoms are threatened by the big government that Democratic idea has spawned. Our case for the individual is stronger than ever. A defense of the individual against government was never more needed. And we will continue to mount it.
But we will redefine and broaden the debate by transcending the narrow terms of government and the individual; those are not the only two realities in America. Our society consists of more than that; so should the political debate. We will reemphasize those vital communities like the family, the neighborhood, the workplace, and others which are found at the center of society, between government and the individual. We will restore and strengthen their ability to solve problems in the places where people spend their daily lives and can turn to each other for support and help.
We seek energy independence through economic policies that free up our energy production and encourage conservation. We seek improvements in health care, education, housing, and opportunities for youth. We seek new avenues for the needy to break out of the tragic cycle of dependency. All of these goals—and many others—we confidently expect to achieve through a rebirth of liberty and resurgence of private initiatives, for we believe that at the root of most of our troubles today is the misguided and discredited philosophy of an all-powerful government, ceaselessly striving to subsidize, manipulate, and control individuals. But it is the individual, not the government, who reigns at the center of our Republican philosophy.
This preamble language sets expectations for related issues throughout the 1980 GOP platform. Education was a major plank in the platform.
The family is the foundation of our social order. It is the school of democracy. Its daily lessons—cooperation, tolerance, mutual concern, responsibility, industry—are fundamental to the order and progress of our Republic. But the Democrats have shunted the family aside. They have given its power to the bureaucracy, its jurisdiction to the courts, and its resources to government grantors. For the first time in our history, there is real concern that the family may not survive.
Government may be strong enough to destroy families, but it can never replace them.
Unlike the Democrats, we do not advocate new federal bureaucracies with ominous power to shape a national family order. Rather, we insist that all domestic policies, from child care and schooling to Social Security and the tax code, must be formulated with the family in mind.
Next to religious training and the home, education is the most important means by which families hand down to each new generation their ideals and beliefs. It is a pillar of a free society. But today, parents are losing control of their children’s schooling. The Democratic Congress and its counterparts in many states have launched one fad after another, building huge new bureaucracies to misspend our taxes. The result has been a shocking drop in student performance, lack of basics in the classroom, forced busing, teacher strikes, manipulative and sometimes amoral indoctrination.
The Republican Party is determined to restore common sense and quality to education for the sake of all students, especially those for whom learning is the highway to equal opportunity. Because federal assistance should help local school districts, not tie them up in red tape, we will strive to replace the crazy quilt of wasteful programs with a system of block grants that will restore decisionmaking to local officials responsible to voters and parents. We recognize the need to preserve, within the structure of block grants, special educational opportunities for the handicapped, the disadvantaged, and other needy students attending public and private nonprofit elementary and secondary schools.
We hail the teachers of America. Their dedication to our children is often taken for granted, and they are frequently underpaid for long hours and selfless service, especially in comparison with other public employees.
We understand and sympathize with the plight of America’s public school teachers, who so frequently find their time and attention diverted from their teaching responsibilities to the task of complying with federal reporting requirements. America has a great stake in maintaining standards of high quality in public education. The Republican Party recognizes that the achievement of those standards is possible only to the extent that teachers are allowed the time and freedom to teach. To that end, the Republican Party supports deregulation by the federal government of public education, and encourages the elimination of the federal Department of Education.
We further sympathize with the right of qualified teachers to be employed by any school district wishing to hire them, without the necessity of their becoming enrolled with any bargaining agency or group. We oppose any federal action, including any action on the part of the Department of Education, to establish “agency shops” in public schools.
We support Republican initiatives in the Congress to restore the right of individuals to participate in voluntary, non-denominational prayer in schools and other public facilities.
Our goal is quality education for all of America’s children, with a special commitment to those who must overcome handicap, deprivation, or discrimination. That is why we condemn the forced busing of school children to achieve arbitrary racial quotas. Busing has been a prescription for disaster, blighting whole communities across the land with its divisive impact. It has failed to improve the quality of education, while diverting funds from programs that could make the difference between success and failure for the poor, the disabled, and minority children.
We must halt forced busing and get on with the education of all our children, focusing on the real causes of their problems, especially lack of economic opportunity.
Federal education policy must be based on the primacy of parental rights and responsibility. Toward that end, we reaffirm our support for a system of educational assistance based on tax credits that will in part compensate parents for their financial sacrifices in paying tuition at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary level. This is a matter of fairness, especially for low-income families, most of whom would be free for the first time to choose for their children those schools which best correspond to their own cultural and moral values. In this way, the schools will be strengthened by the families’ involvement, and the families’ strengths will be reinforced by supportive cultural institutions.
We are dismayed that the Carter Administration cruelly reneged on promises made during the 1976 campaign. Wielding the threat of his veto, Mr. Carter led the fight against Republican attempts to make tuition tax credits a reality.
Next year, a Republican White House will assist, not sabotage, Congressional efforts to enact tuition tax relief into law.
We will halt the unconstitutional regulatory vendetta launched by Mr. Carter’s IRS Commissioner against independent schools.
We will hold the federal bureaucracy accountable for its harassment of colleges and universities and will clear away the tangle of regulation that has unconscionably driven up their expenses and tuitions. We will respect the rights of state and local authorities in the management of their school systems.
The commitment of the American people to provide educational opportunities for all has resulted in a tremendous expansion of schools at all levels. And the more we reduce the federal proportion of taxation, the more resources will be left to sustain and develop state and local institutions.
Only two years later, the Department of Education was “the department that would not die.” The RepubliCAN’T Senate Majority Leader was cited as the face of the Swamp’s resistance to Reagan.
The separate Department of Education, created at the urging of President Jimmy Carter, who was fulfilling a campaign pledge to the National Education Association, split the organized teaching profession: the N.E.A. wanted it as a symbol of its own power; the rival American Federation of Teachers opposed it because it felt that the forces of education had more clout as part of the giant Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now replaced by the Department of Health and Human Services).
What will become of this department that has been mired in politics from its birth? Mr. Bell insists that his plans have not changed, even as he concedes that his expectations of a quick replacement of the department by a Foundation for Educational Assistance, patterned on the National Science Foundation, will not be submitted to Congress for action until next year.
The real reason the Department of Education is likely to remain alive, as Willard Mcguire, the N.E.A.’s president, sees it, is that the Administration ”doesn’t have the votes” to kill it. After all, the Senate majority leader, Howard H. Baker Jr., Republican of Tennessee, supports the department and has let it be known that he personally will not handle any Administration bill to abolish it.
In 1985, after his overwhelming reelection victory, President Reagan conceded complete defeat on his, and his party’s, Department of Education promise. The Senate RepubliCAN’Ts fingerprints were all over this betrayal.
“I have no intention of recommending the abolition of the department to the Congress at this time,” Reagan said in a letter to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Reagan said: “As you know, I have previously recommended the abolition of the Department of Education.
“This was because I believed that federal educational programs could be administered effectively without a Cabinet-level agency. While I still feel that this is the best approach, that proposal has received very little support in the Congress.”
Reagan’s letter, released today by Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), was sent to answer questions about the Administration’s position on the department during hearings Monday on the nomination of William J. Bennett to become the new secretary.
On the basis of the letter, Weicker–who expressed unease during the hearing on the future of the Education Department–said he no longer has any concerns that the Administration may have plans to eliminate the department.
“I am satisfied that the Administration will not seek to shut down the Department of Education,” Weicker said. “Dr. Bennett can now concern himself with the management and improvement of the department, not its eradication.”
The defeat came, in part, because Americans, or at least our elites, have always supported some level of national involvement in education, starting at the elementary or grammar school level. Indeed, we already had national government laws affecting school financing when the Framers met in Philadelphia to “form a more perfect union.” Education was addressed in the series of ordinances governing settlement of the old Northwest Territories (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota).
Ordinance of 1785 commanded education funding with a property set-aside in every township. A township would have 36 one square mile lots, and lot number 16 would always be dedicated to funding public education.
The plats of the townships respectively, shall be marked by subdivisions into lots of one mile square, or 640 acres, in the same direction as the external lines, and numbered from 1 to 36; always beginning the succeeding range of the lots with the number next to that with which the preceding one concluded.
There shall be reserved for the United States out of every township, the four lots, being numbered 8, 11, 26, 29, and out of every fractional part of a township, so many lots of the same numbers as shall be found thereon, for future sale. There shall be reserved the lot N 16, of every township, for the maintenance of public schools, within the said township; also one third part of all gold, silver, lead and copper mines, to be sold, or otherwise disposed of as Congress shall hereafter direct.
The Congress of the Confederation passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 as the Constitutional Convention delegates met.
Sec. 14. It is hereby ordained and declared by the authority aforesaid, That the following articles shall be considered as articles of compact between the original States and the people and States in the said territory and forever remain unalterable, unless by common consent, to wit:
Art. 1. No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory.
Art. 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.
The first manifestation of the Department of Education came shortly after the Civil War. It was the creation of the Radical Republican dominated Congress. In 1876, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill creating a Department of Education. It had been the subject of long debate, arguing over whether it should be a “bureau” or “department” and just what it might become in time. A search of the Congressional Globe, predecessor to the Congressional Record, shows dueling bills for bureau or department. In the first session of the 39th Congress we also see:
– joint resolution (H. R. No. 180) extending the time for the completion of the Agricultural college of the State of Iowa
– Agricultural colleges, bill (S. No. 344) donating public lands to the several States which may provide, for the education of persons of African descent
– Agriculture, bill (H. R. No. 50) to amend the fifth section of an act donating public lands to the several States and Territories which may provide colleges for the benefit of, and the mechanic arts, approved July 2, 1862
– joint resolution donating certain property of the United States to boards of education of certain townships
– bill (S. No. 166) to encourage education in, and the mechanic arts by exempting college lands from taxation
So, education was not just a local matter in America until the rise of the left. There was always a national role, at least in providing a funding mechanism for public schools. Where the Northwest Ordinances addressed an era of one-room schoolhouses, the Congress, after the Civil War, was looking at needs for adult education in agriculture and the mechanical arts. The Department of Education was created in 1867, then demoted but not functionally eliminated the very next year.
There shall be established, at the city of Washington, a department of education, for the purpose of collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and Territories, and of diffusing such information respecting the organization and management of schools and school systems, and methods of teaching, as shall aid the people of the United States in the establishment and maintenance of efficient school systems, and otherwise promote the cause of education throughout the country.
The first and last Commissioner, Henry Barnard, went big and was sent home the very next year.
In 1868, Barnard delivered the first of what would be annual reports to Congress. It had been a busy year. He published a dozen circulars on teacher training, school architecture, education taxes and more. The commissioner requested additional funds. He needed another clerk and he wanted more books and studies that described the school reforms undertaken in Europe. Barnard also wanted the department to publish state education data in cases where state governments lacked funds to do so.
Instead of backing his ideas, Congress rebuked him. The Department of Education was demoted to an office in the Department of the Interior. To add insult to injury, it also cut Barnard’s salary 25 percent. He got no protection from Johnson, who was generally unsupportive of Reconstruction.
The Civil Expenses Appropriations of 1868, an exhaustive list of non-military funding for the year, started talking about appropriations and then abolished the Department, reconstituting it as a mere “office of education” within the Department of the Interior. This lasted until the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, starting with Woodrow Wilson, leveraged “crisis” after “crisis” to build acceptance of a national government role in controlling K-12 education. A summary on the 40th anniversary of the Department of Education describes the ever-increasing scope of national intervention in the 20th century:
High rates of illiteracy among the enlistees for World War I and the arrival of many non-English speaking immigrants was used to justify the creation of federal vocational educational programs. The Great Depression’s economic calamities became a basis for getting the federal government into school construction policy. Malnutrition among the young was a reason —but not the only one— to create the School Lunch Act. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets was a rationale for creating science, technology, and foreign language programs in American high schools. The came the rediscovery of poverty and the racial turmoils which fueled the push for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
The modern Department of Education was extracted from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), increasing the number of cabinet-level agencies and disconnecting “education” from health and human welfare, let alone, say Labor or Commerce. However, it was President Eisenhower and a narrowly Republican-controlled Congress that first elevated “education” to cabinet level, with the creation of the HEW.
The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was created on April 11, 1953, when Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1953 became effective. HEW thus became the first new Cabinet-level department since the Department of Labor was created in 1913. The Reorganization Plan abolished the Federal Security Agency and transferred all of its functions to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and all components of the Agency to the Department. The first Secretary of HEW was Oveta Culp Hobby, a native of Texas, who had served as Commander of the Women’s Army Corps in World War II and was editor and publisher of the Houston Post. Sworn in on April 11, 1953, as Secretary, she had been FSA Administrator since January 21, 1953.
So, establishment Republicans were already on board with K-12 education as a national responsibility, elevated to the cabinet-level. The only real fights would be over who got to control the levers of power. President Reagan had to fight the defeatist Nixon/Ford/Bush RepubliCAN’T party of just slightly slower Democratic Party dominance. He failed. Completely.
Professional Conservative Bill Bennett got a great career boost, leaving behind a triple legacy of ashes with the National Endowment of the Arts, the Department of Education, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Reagan failed completely to sell the benefits of taking power from faceless bureaucrats and giving the money and control back to parents, for the benefit of children. He failed to tar Republican senators with stealing from children to fatten federal bureaucrats.
Reagan failed because he was not willing to make this an issue like the Berlin Wall or the whole host of conventional and nuclear force issues on which he confounded the Washington establishment. The pieces seem to be there in the 1980 GOP platform. Because Reagan failed, we ended up with Bush the Second signing the No Child Left Behind Act, linking school statistics with funding and even reorganization.
As Kevin Kosar noted in Politico six years ago, the Department of Education dominates by diktat, buries local control in a blizzard of bureaucratic activity:
Today, federal funds are less than 10 percent of elementary and secondary education spending. Localities and states pay the rest. But while federal funding is modest, Washington’s sway is not. Title 20, the corpus of federal education laws, runs more than 1,000 pages. The Department of Education spends $70 billion each year and issues reams of regulations and policy guidance, spelling out in exacting detail what states, localities and schools must do to keep the federal funds flowing.
The Department of Education has advanced the most radical elements of the secular supremacist left’s culture war with casual contempt for federal law, let alone the Constitution. Under Obama, “Dear Colleague Letters” were issued instead of regulations properly noticed, with a statutory comment period and comments considered before final publication. While President Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, repealed the lawless transgender diktat, framed as informal guidance, the RepubliCAN’T controlled Congress, under Lyin’ Ryan and Mitch McConnell, failed to impose real reform and limitations on the agency facing the heart of the left’s assault on our constitutional republic.
Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and the whole sexual agenda of the left have advanced from graduate school to K-12, and the Department of Education is always there as a force multiplier for the left. Reagan needed cultural conservatives’ votes but left them a legacy of ashes in the Department of Education.Published in