OF ALL THE legislation that President Carter wants from Congress, the bill that it gave him this week was, ironically, the least useful and most dubious. At the president's urgent request, Congress has now created a new Department of Education. Meanwhile, the bill for synthetic fuels is losing speed. The bill to control hospital costs is chin-deep in conflicting committee jurisdictions. The Senate Finance Committee has merrily turned the oil tax into a net loss to the Treasury. The administration's national health plan, unveiled with much fanfare at the White House three months ago, has yet to be introduced as legislation. But the bill to create an Education Department was a matter of high priority to the Carter administration, and the object of its intense lobbying.
A great deal now depends on the person chosen by Mr. Carter to head the department. One leading reason for the opposition to separate department was the fear that, by sheer bureaucratic momentum, it would inevitably erode local and state control over public schools. If the incoming secretary of education understands that tendency, recognizes it as dangerous and agrees that it ought to be resisted, some of these anxieties can be allayed.
The creation of this department is a response, by both the president and the Congress, to one specific organization, the National Education Association. The NEA represents many, but not all, of the people who are employed by public school systems. It is always questionable policy to establish a large public agency whose constituency is the same people whose work that agency oversees. The NEAR is, for example, adamantly opposed to any systematic attempt to measure the quality of the education that schools provide. The NEA's opposition to standardized testing, of either students or their teachers, has become increasingly explicit in recent years.
A good many people in Congress seem to have voted for this legislation with mixed feelings. They did not want to offend teachers, or an organization that represents so many of them. But neither did Congress intend to authorize any large new federal interventions in American education. Perhaps it is not unreasonably optimistic to hope that Congress will take the bill's proponents at their word, and regard it as nothing more than a reorganization of existing functions in the most strict and narrow sense. It would best serve the interest of education if this legislation turns out not to make very much difference.