The Controversial History of the Department of Education

Some pundits and politicians call for the abolition of the Department of Education.  Questions over the role of the Department of Education are not new.

The Department’s predecessors trace back to 1867.  Congress passed the Department of Education Act of 1867, creating a federal agency to collect statistics on the state of education in the country. Draft Saved Within a year of the agency’s creation, Congress began to believe that the Department was a waste of money.  Accordingly, Congress passed legislation providing that in 1869, the Department of Education would become an office within the Department of Interior.  It remained there for 70 years.

In 1939, the Office was transferred to the Federal Security Agency, which oversaw social welfare and education programs.  In 1951, most of the FSA’s functions became part of a new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that was created by Eisenhower’s Reorganization Plan No. 1.

The current iteration of the “Department of Education” as a cabinet-level agency was created by Congress in 1979, with the Department of Education Organization Act, and signed into law by Jimmy Carter on October 17, 1979.   The Act went into effect on May 4, 1980.

At the time it was created, the Department of Education was controversial.  The Act creating it squeaked through the House of Representatives by a 215 to 201 vote.  That was particularly close given the fact that there were 292 democrats in the House, compared to only 143 republicans.  In the senate, the vote was a more comfortable 69 to 22.

The history of the Department of Education suggests that federal involvement in education has long been part of the federal government’s functions, and predates the modern regulatory state.  But history also shows that federal government involvement in education has been controversial from the moment it began.

Some pundits and politicians call for the abolition of the Department of Education.  Questions over the role of the Department of Education are not new.

The Department’s predecessors trace back to 1867.  Congress passed the Department of Education Act of 1867, creating a federal agency to collect statistics on the state of education in the country.  Within a year of the agency’s creation, Congress began to believe that the Department was a waste of money.  Accordingly, Congress passed legislation providing that in 1869, the Department of Education would become an office within the Department of Interior.  It remained there for 70 years.

In 1939, the Office was transferred to the Federal Security Agency, which oversaw social welfare and education programs.  In 1951, most of the FSA’s functions became part of a new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that was created by Eisenhower’s Reorganization Plan No. 1.

The current iteration of the “Department of Education” as a cabinet-level agency was created by Congress in 1979, with the Department of Education Organization Act, and signed into law by Jimmy Carter on October 17, 1979.   The Act went into effect on May 4, 1980.

At the time it was created, the Department of Education was controversial.  The Act creating it squeaked through the House of Representatives by a 215 to 201 vote.  That was particularly close given the fact that there were 292 democrats in the House, compared to only 143 republicans.  In the senate, the vote was a more comfortable 69 to 22.

The history of the Department of Education suggests that federal involvement in education has long been part of the federal government’s functions, and predates the modern regulatory state.  But history also shows that federal government involvement in education has been controversial from the moment it began.

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