Remarks on the 40th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Department of Education: The Transformation of Federal Education Politics

Nela McCluskey Chris Cross Ron Kimberling Kevin Kosar 04-2020

Source: Kosar remarks start at 29:50.

Chris Cross and Ron Kimberling have spoken of the creation of the Department of Education and its earliest years in operation.

My own comments will focus on a broader issue of the Department of Education (ED) and the transformation of federal education politics. The establishment of ED was a major moment.

In short, the creation of the Department of Education rang the death knell for the very long national debate over the propriety of federal involvement in K-12 schooling. 

Consider one point: Forty years ago, it was well within the bounds of political discourse to argue that we do not need a Department of Education. Today, anyone who takes that position waved off as a libertarian or troglodytic paleoconservative. Today, you cannot be president by arguing that we really do not need a Department of Education.

To fully appreciate how much federal education politics has changed, I want to step back and put the Ed Department in a larger historical context. 

So, let’s think about this in three periods: Pre-1865, 1865 to 1980, and post 1980.


As a general proposition, it is fair to say that education always has been valued in the United States. Being educated has been thought of as a quality that enables individual liberty and empowers self governance. Jefferson put matters pithily, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

During this period, there was no question who has authority over education. It was parents, and localities, and eventually state governments.

From the earliest European settlements in America in the 1600s through the early 1800s, education was almost inevitably assumed to be the responsibility of parents or whomever was in charge of children. The earliest settlers homeschooled their children, hired tutors or itinerant teachers, and established private and town schools.

When the U.S. Constitution was drafted, there was no discussion of the federal Congress having authority over the schooling of the young. Article I, Section 8 of our national charter makes no mention of the topic, and the 10th amendment essentially notes that the powers not conferred to the federal government are reserved to the states. This is federalism, and schooling and schooling the young was not the business of the feds.

There was, however, some talk at the constitutional convention of creating a national university. Charles Pinckney was a proponent, so too Benjamin Rush and George Washington. They all thought a republic needed to train young adult men for future government service. But their proposal did not advance.

And for much of the 19th century, the plain reading of the Constitution perspective held. Congress limited its activities in education to requiring newly created states to establish schools; and creating academies for soldiers and sailors, at West Point (1802) and Annapolis (1845) respectively. Congress also created Gaulladet to serve deaf students, and Howard University to train African Americans.

But K-12 education was not a matter that the federal government got into, except in two instances: schools for American Indians and for African American children in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Again, these actions were well within the scope of federal powers—the Constitution’s treaty powers and the 14th Amendment.


After the civil war, however, we begin to see the political parties start to take opposing stands on the federal role in schooling. Initially, it was Republicans who pushed for the feds to do something about education. It was they who made President Andrew Johnson sign legislation establishing the first Department of Education in 1867.  It lasted only a few years before being downgraded to a bureau tucked in another agency. Johnson also got jammed by Republicans with the Freedman’s Bureau, which helped create and staff schools in the South. Democrats stood in opposition.

After 1900, Republicans switched their post civil war position to anti-federal involvement, and Democrats took up the mantle of pushing for more federal involvement. They used a series of national emergencies as justifications for injecting the federal government into schooling. High rates of illiteracy among the enlistees for World War I and the arrival of many non-English speaking immigrants was used to justify the creation of federal vocational educational programs. The Great Depression’s economic calamities became a basis for getting the federal government into school construction policy. Malnutrition among the young was a reason —but not the only one— to create the School Lunch Act. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets was a rationale for creating science, technology, and foreign language programs in American high schools. The came the rediscovery of poverty and the racial turmoils which fueled the push for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Thus, for about 100 years one political party or the other played offense on federal involvement in K-12 education and the other played defense. 

Post 1980

After 1980, the political game really changes.

The establishment of the Department of Education in 1980 cemented the federal role in schooling in a highly salient way. There was now a Secretary of Education who sat in the cabinet, right there with the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and etc. The federal role was not just for crises—it was eternal and proper.

Initially, Ronald Reagan ran against the Department of Education. He campaigned against the growing role of the federal government in education. He spoke of sending responsibility back to the states. He spoke the language of federalism. 

But the political winds were blowing against him. And the publication of A Nation at Risk sounded an alarm: there is a national educational emergency; accordingly, the logic went, there must be a national response. Abolishing the Department of Education, which was favored by some Reagan aides and many on the political right, was a nonstarter.

Bob Dole in 1996 was the last Republican presidential nominee to advocate abolishing the Department of education. After he was soundly defeated, a young Governor in Texas remarked to the media, “There’s no question that from a political perspective, [Clinton] stole the [education] issue and it affected the women’s vote…Republicans must say that we are for education.” And being against the Department of Education was no longer politically within bounds for anyone who wanted to lead the nation.

So it is that today that both the Democratic and Republican parties conceive of the Department of Education as a fixture in the federal system, and as a tool for advancing their policy interests. The federalism debate, for the most part, has been relegated to the extent of the language tacked onto the billions of dollars in grants in aid that the Department dispenses.

This is a story we have seen before. The U.S. did not have much of a standing army or navy for much of its history. Today, the Department of Defense (DOD) is a behemoth, the military is woven into American identity. And DOD is not going anywhere.

Institutions matter, and they affect politics and the operating assumptions of our governance system.

Thank you for listening.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s