Officials may face axe yet again
Boosted by the Republican majority in Congress, conservatives are on the warpath. Doing away with the government has become the cry of the electoral victors, and there are clear signs that it resonates with voters.
At a conference organised by conservative groups last month, and in evidence to a congressional committee, two former Republican education secretaries, William Bennett and Lamar Alexander, called for the elimination of their old place of employment. The Department of Education had become too bureaucratic and "meddlesome", they said, and stifled innovation.
The department, small and relatively powerless compared to its English and Welsh counterpart, was established in the 1970s under President Jimmy Carter. It performs a ragbag of functions, including collection of statistics and administering student grants and loans, because the running of school systems lies elsewhere. But it has long been a bete noir of certain conservatives. The fact that it has not been well run until recently means it has few friends.
The House of Representatives' committee on education, which has been renamed the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee under its new Republican chairman, William Goodling, is expected to consider legislation to abolish the department.
However, many committee members of both parties, including Goodling, have strong reservations about dismantling it. And current Education Secretary Richard Riley is busy trying to justify its existence.
"Education is primarily a state responsibility under local control," said Riley. "But it is also a national priority which requires a national commitment."
Messrs Bennett and Alexander are particularly vexed by President Clinton's Goals 2000 reform, giving states money to raise standards in schools. Alexander said it turned a national movement into a federal one. Riley is wasting no opportunity trumpeting such reforms as achievements - albeit packaged in the wrapping paper of the conservative political climate.
In his second "Annual State of American Education address" delivered to a middle school in northern Virginia last week, Riley said the United States had turned a corner. Lauding the Goals 2000 plan, an attempt to set standards in every subject around the nation, he emphasised that this was a model of how states and local schools could be helped without being smothered with regulations.
"Our Department of Education has decided to have no regulations governing this 400 million dollar programme - no regulations - and the state application form is just four pages long," he said.
American ingenuity and creativity in the shape of charter schools (similar to Britain's grant-maintained concept) should be encouraged, he added. Vouchers for private schools should not, because of lack of accountability.