I don't suppose the country will suffer rapid decline if Jimmy Carter doesn't win Cabinet-level status for a new Department of Education. But it does seem to me that this is a sound organizational move, and that it ought to have been taken long ago.
The fact that the President is fulfilling a campaign promise that he made to the nation's teachers seems to be irrelevant. Why shouldn't he make promises to the nation's teachers? There are about 3 million of them; and if our citizenry were categorized on a scale of "goodness," teachers would rank pretty high.
Moreover, it seems to me that the enormous constituency that is engaged in getting educated has long been neglected. We have a Department of Agriculture to advise a dwindling number of farmers; we have a Department of Labor that exists largely to help trade unionists; we have a Department of Commerce to offer aid to businessmen. Why shouldn't we have a department to guide, encourage and advise the more than 50 million of our population who are going to school?
It is at least arguable that, as a function of government, education is more important than some other functions that now rate Cabinet status. Our future and our hopes for high achievement rest on education.
Right now the federal government is spending about $30 billion a year on education, and the programs are scattered all over the place. About half of them are in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the rest are controlled by 20 other departments, agencies and bureaus, often necessitating long negotiation between rival empires to get anything done.
So from the standpoint of efficiency alone, a separate department would improve services. But there's also the matter of stature. In the last 23 years, the Division of Education within HEW has had 11 commissioners, most of them of not very high caliber. The job doesn't carry much prestige, and it pays somewhat less than a college president can make or a superintendent of schools in a large district. Cabinet stature might bring the best minds to the service of education.
That would mean we might be able to do some planning. Right now, for example, American schools are said to be very weak in foreign languages. What are we doing about it? If anybody in the federal government is speaking out on this subject, I've missed it. But if a Secretary of Education thought the lack was crucial and said so, we would hear about it on the evening news.
Opponents will surely point out that a department status for education will cost money and that, with a new department, there will be a tendency to spend more money.
Why not? What better objective than excellence in education can we spend money on?
Housed as it now is in HEW, education gets the leavings. The department's expenditures are based almost entirely on the numbers of aged or infirm who have a draft on the government. So there is little room for thinking in terms of spending innovatively. HEW Secretary Joseph Califano and his assistants can't do much planning because their main task is to keep up with the bills.
I don't blame Califano for opposing a Department of Education. No government official ever wants to surrender a piece of his turf. But on grounds of efficiency as well as the proper recognition of national values, it sems to me that Jimmy Carter's promise to the teachers is one we should help him fulfill.