IT DID NOT exactly come as an earth-shaking surprise that President Carter last Friday asked Congress to create a department of education. The creation of such a department, seperate from HEW, was an explicit Carter campaign pledge. And there is an enormous reservoir of sentiment favoring the move in the Senate: Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, the Connecticut Democrat who is himself a former HEW secretary and who currently presides over the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, had 52 co-sponsors on a bill proposing a new eduction department the last time we looked. So we are well aware that we are swimming upstream with our own perception of the plan: We think it is a bad idea.
Our opinion has nothing to do with the personal, political and bureaucratic tugging and hauling that seems to be going on among Secretary Hoseph Califano and a variety of others over territorial imperatives and turf. And we do recognize the validity of some of the assertions that are being made in support of new department, although we don't think those assertions, true or not, necessarily lead in logic to the need for creating a separate department of education. Yes, it is a fact that since HEW was established around a quarter of a century ago, the total educational budget has zoomed into the stratosphere, from a few hundred million dollars to more than 10 billion. And yes, it is true that the American education system is full of flaws and that some of them seem to be getting worse, not better. And it is the case that HEW itself is ungainly in size and shape and that the Office of Education has a kind of institutional thyroid deficiency and that there is a great deal of cross-purposes, self-canceling activity between all the various agencies and subagencies of government that have a hand in education.
But to acknowledge all that is not automatically to make the case for creating a new department. The collection of various bureaucracies and instrumentalities into one seemingly logical place is a fairly common element of governmental-reform schemes - that has had at best mixed results. The bureaucratic bits and pieces that became HUD, for example, hardly underwent a galvanic revitalization by virtue of sharing a roof and a set of executive managers. And to look at either the Labor Department, say, or the Commerce Department is to know that gathering units of government around a single large, controling subject hardly guarantees their energy or efficiency.
We don't cite the Labor and Commerce departments casually: To the extent that they are basically one-constituency organizations of government, they provide another cautionary note. One of the pricipal risks of creating a creature of its clientele. That clientele would not necessarily be the schoolchildren and their parents affected by the federal government's education programs. Much more probably it would be the National Education Association, the organization of teachers and school administrators who already exert a great deal of influence on education policy in Washington. In a way, this would be giving them their own department.
Let's go back for a moment to the arguement about the zooming-into-the-stratosphere budget: After all, the same argument could be made about the various armed services that were gathered into the Defense Department. Do they now deserve to be separated out into independent entities answerable only to the president and not to the secretary of defense? The comparison isn't wholly apt, but it isn't wholly frivolous, either, because it is precisely this fitting in of eduction with the other, related health and welfare programs that makes sense of having education in and under the HEW organzation. The more they can be made to function in some degree of harmony with each other, the better.
So we don't see the self-evident wisdom of the proposal on substantive grounds, and we note that strictly in terms of let's-put-it-all-in-one-place efficiency, the president's proposed consolidation of federal education programs into one department leaves out - surely, as reported, because of contrary lobbying pressures - veterans education and job and manpower training programs, which together add up to an enormous amount of what the government spends on education now. Pressure groups organized around a particular interest saw to that. Does Mr. Carter really want to organize another such group, in government, under the heading of the Department of Education?