The House of Representatives will soon vote on legislation to shift 150 existing federal education programs to a separate department. The Post has raised some important questions with regard to this reorganization. Unfortunately, it has gone only halfway in answering them.
The issue before the House involves a choice between two alternatives. Members can vote for a Department of Education, or, by voting nay on the question, they can retain the status quo - the Health-Education-Welfare structure.
Any sensible appraisal of these options must compare the proposed structure with the existing one, examine the strengths and weaknesses of both and make some final decision. The Post's failure to develop such a logical assessment is baffling, to say the least.
The Post argues, for example, that shifting federal education programs to a separate department increases bureaucratic costs. But there is obviously a broader question to ask here: How would such costs, transitional or otherwise, compare with the cumulative costs that would be associated with keeping the existing structure?
The federal government has long been criticized for the way it administers aid-to-education programs. Most of this criticism has come from local officials concerned with the excessive red tape and delays - bureaucracy - associated with such programs.
The submerged organizational status of education in HEW provides little check on such bureaucracy. In fact, it has served to encourage it.
Today every decision made by HEW's Officer of Education must also be approved by an extensive set of departmental clearance points. The needless delays and red tape resulting from this elaborate departmental structure is well-documented. For example, it has taken HEW in the past 519 days on average to clear routine regulations.
Shifting education programs to a separate department would directly eliminate most of the bureaucratic layers necessitated by the HEW structure.It would cut in half the time it takes to process departmental business. It would allow the federal government to respond quickly and more effectively to local needs and concerns. It would save money by eliminating 450 federal positions. In fact, the bill before the House requires that these positions be cut out within two years.
A second question raised by The Post is what effect the proposed reorganization might have on the federal role in education. The same question needs to be asked regarding the current organization. What would keeping the education programs in HEW mean to education policy-making?
The Post has argued that Formation of a separate Department of Education would enlarge the federal role in education. But the historical lack of an effective administrative structure has not in any way hindered the growth of federal education programs. What it has hindered is the kind of management control over such programs that would ensure a better return on the tax dollars devoted to them.
A separate Department of Education would expose the federal role in education to far greater public scrutiny and discussion. It would enable the Congress and the public to make far more explicit judgments about what the government should - and should not - be doing in education.
As long as education programs remain sandwiched in HEW between the government's giant health and welfare functions, full management control will remain elusive. Long-term education question will continue to be pushed aside by more pressing crises.
This brings us to the question of accountability.
The Post has asked whether a Department of Education might be dominated by the narrow interest of organized education groups. Yet the interests of education groups are extremely diverse. Often they are in outright competition. The Post has itself noted this phenomenon. In fact, those who support the Department of Education reflect a broad constituency of interests - parents, teachers, students, civil-rights leaders, state and local officials. They are anything but monolithic in either viewpoints or objectives.
The great advantage of a Department of Education is that it will make federal education programs responsive to a far broader constituency than they are now. Instead of being buried three levels deep in a $200 billion-a-year bureaucracy - where only the professional grantsman can keep track of them - such programs will be exposed to the full light of public notice. For the first time, federal aid-to-education programs will be included in a single, highly visible agency with a single official responsible full-time for their success. For the first time, members of Congress will have a clear view of what the federal government is doing in education and who is in charge of such activities.