IN ITS ORGY of amending the Department of Education plan last week, the House of Representatives managed to make a bad bill worse. On top of its fundamental flaws, the measure now sports an antibusing clause; some language meant to bar equal-opportunity rules involving quotas or ratios, and a provision favoring voluntary prayer in public schools. In short, the bill as it now stands in the House would not just create an Education Department any more. It would also charge that department with carrying out some immensely far-reaching and controversial policies.
The large majorities that these amendments enjoyed suggest that some of the bill's opponents were trying to burden the measure and increase their chances of sinking it. Whatever the strategy involved, the results ought to make a number of the department's bakcers think carefully before the final vote in the House. Lobbyists for the bill maintain that all the objectionable clauses can be excised in Senate-House conference. They shouldnht count on it. The Senate has passed its share of anti-busing measures, mainly on appropriations bills, and a number of senators might welcome a chance to end the annual hassles by writing restrictions into permanent law. Moreover, before passing its version of the Education Department bill, the Senate barely managed to sidetrack a school-prayer provision of its own. Under these circumstances, pushing the current bill through the House and hoping to clean it up later could be a very risky tack.
On other counts, too, the House debate has featured a series of campaigns by advocates of various causes. Supporters of bilingual education, foreign-language studies and programs for rural families managed to get those interests included in the bill. Champions of health and manpower programs, Head Start and Indian education, succeeded in protecting their projects by keeping them out. All this maneuvering was right in keeping with the entire history of the bill, which has been shaped and reshaped continually in accord with the preferences of those interest groups with enough clout to get their way.
But the case against this measure does not really turn on the glosses of illogic, special pleading and hostility to civil rights and liberties added on the House floor. Even in its leanest, least cluttered form, an Education Department is a regressive idea. Indeed, given the Carter administration's emphasis on coordinating programs, trimming down the government and getting to the roots of bureaucratic snarls, it's inconsistent for administration spokesmen to insist that the problems of managing education programs within the Health-Education-Welfare complex can be solved simply by snatching education out and setting it up as a separate domain. If the HEW superstructure causes more red tape and delays, it would make more sense to tackle those problems directly than to give education a new managerial superstructure of its own.
Finally, there is the question of accountability. Budget Director James T. MacIntyre and others argue that a separate Education Department would be more visible and responsive to a broad constituency. It wurely could be more visible - or at least the new secretary would try hard to make his presence known. But to whom would it be likely to respond most readily? This whole project has been advanced mainly by a few interest groups, not by any surge of grass-roots demand. No wonder some of the staunchest friends of education in the House are skeptical. It's an idea that may sound nice, but it looks worse all the time.