The Gore campaign may have given up bashing George W. Bush’s running mate, Dick Cheney, over his 1979 vote against creating the Department of Education. Smart move: Making that vote an issue brings up just how many liberal Democrats agreed with Cheney back then. It might even get voters to thinking about whether the department’s really worth keeping today. President Jimmy Carter presented the move to give Cabinet-level status to education as taking the “E” out of HEW - the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. But others saw it as a political payoff to the teachers union that had helped vault the once-obscure Carter into the White House.
New York’s own Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of 21 U.S. senators to vote against the department’s creation, observed: “This is a back-room deal, born out of a squalid politics. Everything we had thought we would not see happening to education is happening here. We risk the politicization of education itself, and that it will come about in ways that the system of education itself will not be able to resist.”
In the House, the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) noted that by creating the new department, “We will be minimizing the roles of local and state education officials; [yet in fact] we recognize that the states are responsible for the educational policies of the children in this country.”
Other “bad guys” who joined Cheney in voting “against education” included Reps. Richard Gephardt (Mo., now the House minority leader), John Conyers (Mich.), Henry Waxman (Calif.) and Patricia Schroeder (Colo.) - liberal Democrats all. On the other hand, Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Phil Gramm (Texas), often denounced as extremists, were among the Republicans who supported creating the department.
During the House debate, Schroeder predicted, in language that would make Pat Buchanan proud: “No matter what anyone says, the Department of Education will not just write checks to local school boards. They will meddle in everything. I do not want that.”
Lawmakers weren’t the only ones opposed. The American Federation of Teachers charged that the new department was a political payoff for the rival National Education Association’s 1976 endorsement of Jimmy Carter. It led the ad hoc Committee Against a Separate Department of Education.
The late Albert Shanker, then AFT president, told U.S. News and World Report in 1978 that there should not be such a department: “Education has never been a national responsibility in our country, and school systems should not be operated by an agency in Washington. Public schools must continue to be largely a responsibility of state and local governments.”
In the end, the department barely won approval in the Democrat-controlled House. In all, 77 of 262 Democrats and 124 of 154 Republicans voted no on Sept. 27, 1979.
In 1979, The Washington Post predicted that supporters of the department would come to regret their votes: “If the House does agree to enshrine an insulated, supergraded federal educational bureaucracy in the Cabinet, the results are likely to be so costly and unhealthy for American education that many representatives, in retrospect, will be embarrassed to admit they voted ‘yea.’”
That prediction has not come true. Cheney, for one, now says, “I would vote today to leave the Department of Education in place.” And surely Gephardt, Waxman et al would all agree.
Too bad. Given the woes that have plagued American education in the decades since, shouldn’t someone be asking if Cheney, Moynihan and the rest were right back in 1979 - and wrong today?