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Shirley Hufstedler, the nation’s first federal Education Secretary, has passed away at 90. That news might surprise some, and not just the younger set, who imagined that the first federal education secretary appeared way back in 1776. There wasn’t one, because the Constitution gives states, not the federal government, domain over education. Under these conditions, however, education managed to thrive. Americans established Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton, Northwestern, Stanford and other great independent universities, long before the federal government got involved. Michigan State, Ohio State, UCLA, LSU and countless others, along with countless primary and secondary schools, all arose before any federal involvement in education. Likewise, African Americans established historically black colleges such as Spelman, Howard and Morehouse, long before the federal government played a role.
The federal Department of Education has only existed since 1980 and was a payoff to the National Education Association, the massive teacher cartel that endorsed Jimmy Carter for president in 1976. On November 30, 1979, Shirley Hufstedler, a lawyer and judge, became head of the new education department, which Congress gave a budget of $14 billion. On the watch of the new federal department, student achievement failed to flourish.
As Vicki Alger noted, the NAEP reading performance of 17-year-olds has remained flat since 1978, despite increased spending, “so it appears the U.S. Department of Education has done little if anything to improve the bang-for-buck ratio with regard to federal education spending and student achievement.” But it remains a haven for overpaid bureaucrats, whose average salary exceeds $100,000. As we observed, the department deploys an enforcement division, armed with shotguns, to conduct raids on those suspected of bribery, fraud and embezzlement. On one raid they carted off a man and his three children over a student aid issue involving the man’s estranged wife, who was not even present. But remember, it’s all for the kids.
The budget of the U.S. Department of Education for 2016 is $70.7 billion, an increase of $3.6 billion, over the 2015 level. Based on what the nation achieved before and after the department’s debut in 1980, a ballpark figure for the ideal budget would be zero. Conservatives have threatened to eliminate the department but none, including Ronald Reagan, managed to do so. The federal government continues to get bigger, not smaller.