Needed: A Department of Lifelong Learning and Career Development
Now that Betsy DeVos has taken office as the new secretary of education, the next major education issue, aside from funding levels, may be whether President Trump moves to eliminate the cabinet-level department. Legislation to do that was introduced in the House the day after DeVos’s confirmation. Taking that direction is not the right approach. Instead, we need to create a Department of Lifelong Learning and Career Development.
From the start, the education department has been far too narrow in scope to serve as a model for what states and communities must do to meet societal needs. The issues today -- lifelong learning, early childhood development and education, dealing with the complex issues of poverty, preparing young people for life -- require multi-dimensional solutions based on solid research and data. Today’s bureaucratic structures are inadequate for those tasks.
From 1953 to 1980, education was a part of the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). In 1978, Jimmy Carter was presented with options to create a new agency that would have made Head Start, as well as several Department of Labor job training programs, part of that agency. He proposed nothing like that for fear of constituency backlash.
In fact, leaders like Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Marion Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Richard Lyman, President of Stanford University, all opposed the creation of a separate agency.
In the House Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Jack Brooks (D-TX), the bill to create a new department was blocked in the 95th Congress by a bipartisan coalition led by Rep. John Erlenborn (R-IL) and Rep. Leo Ryan (D-CA). (Ryan’s aide was Jackie Spear who later went on to be elected to Ryan’s seat; I was on loan from the Republican staff of the education committee to support Erlenborn.)
After the November 1978 election, Ryan traveled to Guyana to visit a commune headed by a fanatic named Jim Jones. Jones had been successful in bringing hundreds of followers with him, many from Ryan’s San Francisco Congressional district.
On November 18, as Ryan tried to leave with several Jones cult members who wished to depart, they were ambushed at the airstrip and Ryan was killed while Spear survived. Jones ordered his followers to “drink the Kool-Aid,” laced as it was with cyanide. Over 900 died, including more than 300 children, in what was, until 9/11/2001, the largest loss of civilians in American life in a single incident.
When the 96th Congress convened in January, Brooks again worked to pass the Carter proposal. Finally, on May 2, 1979, the bill passed the committee by a 20-19 vote. Five weeks later the bill passed the House by a vote of 210-206 in what was definitely not a party-line vote. If Ryan had lived, it is unlikely that the bill would have become law.
After a contentious conference, the bill finally reached the president and was signed on October 17, 1979. Within two weeks, Carter nominated Patricia Hufstedler, a federal judge with no education experience, to be the first secretary and on May 7, 1980, the department became operational.
As noted earlier, the issues of today require that there be an agency that has a much more coherent mission than that created in 1979, one that can knit together the resources and creative ideas to provide research (not direction!) to the states on issues from child development and education to the need for the training and retraining of adults. The concept of education today is much too narrow. States, communities and families all need help if they are to meet the challenges of this and the next century. The definition and purpose of education cannot be confined to what takes place in a school or on a campus. We are all learners every day. Bureaucratic silos built on the old model must come tumbling down; states must be given resources, not just federal direction.
Department of Labor programs and initiatives that provide support and resources to create and support jobs should become part of a newly created department, as well as the National Institute for Child Health and Development and the National Science Foundation directorate to advance science education. Together these investments will create more knowledge than each would do in their current silos, which are often buried in many layers of bureaucracy.
Instead of two federal agencies – Labor and Education – let us create one. Yes, that would mean shifting some activities like OHSA (Occupational Health and Safety) to HHS or Commerce and moving student loans to Treasury, but shaking up long-standing levels of complacency and providing a common mission to improve opportunities, enhance learning, grow the economy and assist in meeting the workforce needs of the future would be revitalizing. Programs such as those that serve disadvantaged children and those with special needs would be better informed regarding what we are learning about issues like development of the human brain.
The opportunity now exists for Congress and the president to not just deal with an up or down vote on the question of a Department of Education, but to show creative leadership by calling for a thoughtful dialogue about new approaches to the issues of the future, not simply replaying the battles of the past. The federal government must not direct states and communities; however, it should lead the nation with research, data and the funding of innovation, as well as assuring that individual rights are protected.
Why not a Department of Lifelong Learning and Career Development?
Christopher T. Cross is the Chairman of Cross & Joftus, former Republican staff director of the House Education Committee and a former assistant secretary of education.