In the future, the federal government's role in education will be guided by a foundation made out of the remains of the current Department of Education--at least if the secretary of education, Terrel H. Bell, has his way. Mr. Bell proposed last week that the president create the National Education Foundation, which he envisions as a monitor and research-data service for local education programs. The foundation would not hand out dollars for federal education programs or enforce federal laws concerning education. Federal money for educational programs would go out as part of the block grants to states, and most of the department's enforcement powers would be laid off on other federal agencies. This would leave the foundation pretty much as a research center that would provide help to local governments when help was requested.
Mr. Bell's vision of his department's future fits well with President Reagan's stated intention during his campaign to dismantle the operation. The president has said he views education as a local government responsibility and that federal intervention should not be encouraged by providing a Cabinet-level bureaucracy to stir around in it. But even those of us who have long believed, and continue to believe, that an Education Department is a bad idea and that this one should be dismantled need to answer the question of how the responsibilities that have been delegated to it from here and there will be met when there is no department. There are 160 federal programs in education, including such major items as federal student loans.
Mr. Bell, last week, formally offered the president four alternatives to the department. Besides the foundation, the three other choices were: 1) to simply do away with the department and its functions --an idea that, no matter how swift and neat it may sound, would recklessly abdicate the legitimate federal interest in education; 2) to make the department into an independent agency that would continue to control federal education dollars but without Cabinet-level status and power; and 3) to put the department and its functions into another federal agency. Mr. Bell told the president that he opposed the notion of subsuming the Education Department under any other bureaucracy because it had fared so poorly for years as the forgotten part-- he believes--of Health, Education and Welfare. The idea of creating an independent agency is almost the same as Mr. Bell's idea of creating a foundation, but the agency idea would allow the department to keep most of its current functions, depriving it only of its Cabinet-level status.
The trouble with an independent agency or a foundation, no matter what its scope, is that it would have access to federal money with very little in the way of accountability or control from either Congress or the president. There would be no guarantee that the agency-foundation would lessen unnecessary interference in the affairs of local school districts, either. With an agency-foundation there would also be less opportunity for public criticism of the work or research it was doing. Stopping the Education Department from unwarranted intervention in local affairs is accomplished most fairly and best when the department's actions can be seen and are within easy reach of elected officials. The failings of the foundation-agency approach, in our judgment, point in another direction: toward making it a part of another Cabinet-level department--as it once was. Such a resolution provides the potential of controlling excessively meddlesome tendencies as well as keeping the department's work within public reach and view. The president should consider reconstituting the old HEW.