When Washington’s education bureaucracy comes under political attack, it’s common to pin responsibility for its existence on Jimmy Carter. He signed legislation to establish the Department of Education in 1979, and critics note that this imposed a new department on a country that had gotten along quite well without one for more than 200 years.

But that’s not quite true. It wasn’t Jimmy Carter who launched the first Department of Education: it was Andrew Johnson, and the year was 1867. The department was small, ambitious and astonishingly short-lived. Congress abolished it and demoted its reformist chief just a year later.

The Reconstruction Era was different in many ways, and the department got caught in the toxic racial politics of the day. But at a deeper level the demolition of the original DOE was not a random act of political pique. In fact, the department fell victim to an argument that had started long before Johnson and which we’re still having today: What’s the federal government’s role in our schools? Should it be meddling at all?

America has never been able to answer this question decisively. As a result, our national politics have been especially rancorous when it comes to education. Small policy matters tend to blow up into great philosophical disputes on the nature of government; national bipartisan reforms quickly become political flash points. The issues that inspired the first Education Department didn’t go away, but more than a century would pass before another president would try the same thing.

As Congress tries to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law this fall, and presidential candidates turn broad-based ideas like accountability and Common Core into highly politicized stump issues, it may seem education is just another punching bag for 2015’s partisan warriors. It’s not. These arguments were all simmering in the America of the 1860s. The story of the first DOE helps show why they’ve been so hard to escape.

EDUCATION WAS CENTRAL to the American story from the start. For the most part, the Founders were pro-education. “[N]othing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue,” said Benjamin Franklin. The young nation’s experiment in democratic self-government depended on citizens with the sense to direct their own affairs and to select good leaders. Widespread education “is favorable to liberty,” said Benjamin Rush. “Without learning, men become savages or barbarians, and where learning is confined to a few people, we always find monarchy, aristocracy and slavery.”

But that didn’t mean the founders were pro-federal education. Churches and towns had been running schools since the earliest European settlers landed in North America. At a time in world history when public education was a rarity, some American settlements actually required it. Massachusetts’ Old Deluder Satan Act of 1642, for example, directed “every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to 50 households, shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general.” (The remarkable name of the act was a reference to education’s power to counter the devil, who wants humans illiterate and unable to read God’s directions in the Bible.)

Though American leaders wanted a nation of virtuous, informed citizens, almost nobody saw educating them as the federal government’s job. The Constitution didn’t authorize the federal government to make schools policy. It is not among the enumerated powers in Article I section 8, and the 10th Amendment reserves powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution to the states and the people. For most of the nation’s history, Congress intervened in education only in specific, narrow ways justified by an explicit constitutional provision. The various acts to settle the West almost inevitably required land to be set aside for public schools; Congress had also authorized schools when it chartered the District of Columbia’s government in 1804. (While U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson also was the president of the D.C. school board). The federal government later funded and set up schools on American Indian reservations.

In the early 19th century, the nation’s first major education-reform movement took off. These “common school” reformers sought to professionalize education, which struck them as too often ad hoc and shoddy. They advocated schooling for all children via government school systems with university-educated schoolmen at the top and teachers trained in the latest pedagogical methods. Children would be improved by learning to read, write and perform basic math; and their character would be bettered by moral instruction. The nation as a whole would benefit through the spread of upright, hygienic youth prepared to find work (boys) and run orderly households (girls).

When he arrived in D.C. in 1867, Henry Barnard was the nation’s most famous living education reformer. (Horace Mann, the movement’s iconic figure, had died eight years earlier.) Barnard was a wunderkind who graduated Yale with academic honors at age 20; he was appointed schoolmaster of an academy, then served in the Connecticut Legislature. His bill to establish a state school board became law in 1838, and he was seated on it. That same year, he traveled to Washington to ask what national schooling statistics were available. “Not many” was the response. He persuaded the Census Office to include questions on education. He did all this before age 30, and went on to lead the nascent Rhode Island school system, start a teachers training school and publish the American Journal of Education.

He was an obvious choice for first commissioner of the Department of Education. The idea was the brainchild of Rep. James Garfield, R-Ohio, and other congressmen from northern states who, in the wake of the Civil War, were distressed by widespread illiteracy and the sorry state of many schools.

President Andrew Johnson signed the Department of Education Act in 1867 reluctantly, after he had been assured it was harmless. It was a meek agency. Congress authorized it to have just four employees – besides Commissioner Barnard, there were three clerks – and limited its powers to “collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the United States.” The DOE also was to publish useful information on the “organization and operation” of school systems and “promote the case of education throughout the country.”

Even with these limits, many in Congress hated the Department. They saw its existence as an unconstitutional power grab and worried that its data-gathering authority gave Washington a new and dangerous kind of leverage. Rep. Andrew Rogers (D-N.J.) declared: “I am content, sir, to leave this matter of education where our fathers left it, where the history of our country left it, to the schools systems of the different towns, cities and states…[This legislation] proposes to collect such statistics which will give a controlling power over the schools systems of the states.”

Federal education policy also was a proxy for race politics, which added further fuel. Rep. Garfield and other ardent abolitionists had fought for the department. The Freedmen’s Bureau (established in 1865) had paid northern, Christian missionaries to start schools for blacks in the South. Confederate states, as a condition of readmission to the Union, had to rewrite their constitutions to provide schooling for children, both white and black. The Department of Education would do its part in Reconstruction by tracking the progress to enroll newly emancipated students and increase their literacy rates, and advocating for better schools, all of which struck some in Congress as threatening.

In 1868, Barnard delivered the first of what would be annual reports to Congress. It had been a busy year. He published a dozen circulars on teacher training, school architecture, education taxes and more. The commissioner requested additional funds. He needed another clerk and he wanted more books and studies that described the school reforms undertaken in Europe. Barnard also wanted the department to publish state education data in cases where state governments lacked funds to do so.

Instead of backing his ideas, Congress rebuked him. The Department of Education was demoted to an office in the Department of the Interior. To add insult to injury, it also cut Barnard’s salary 25 percent. He got no protection from Johnson, who was generally unsupportive of Reconstruction.

On March 15, 1870, Henry Barnard resigned as the U.S. commissioner of education. He left Washington and returned to Hartford, Conn., to live out his final 30 years doing what he loved most – studying schooling and advocating for its improvement and expansion to all children. A brief experiment in Washington-driven education reform was over.

UNTIL THE 1960S, Congress tended to stay within its old constitutional bounds on education issues, jumping them only when the nation imagined it was facing a crisis. The 1917 Smith-Hughes Vocational Education Act was passed due to anxieties over widespread illiteracy, especially among the waves of immigrants who might otherwise be susceptible to the incipient anarchist and communist movements. After the next world war, “as a matter of national security,” Congress passed the 1946 School Lunch Act “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.” The national panic over the Soviet launch of Sputnik, putting the Russians ahead in the space race, inspired Congress to hustle the 1958 National Defense Education Act to the desk of an ambivalent President Dwight Eisenhower. It bolstered high school scientific and foreign-language curricula to build more brainpower to fight the Cold War.

But in the 1960s, the federal role in schooling expanded dramatically. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed to ameliorate poverty and the destructive effects of segregation. It was the largest education law to date, and its Title I spread federal dollars to nearly every school district in America with low-income students. The ESEA was omnibus legislation. It paid for projectors and technology for classrooms, training and new administrative systems for state education agencies. It even authorized the commissioner to build education-research centers, a power Barnard would have loved to have. Section 604 of the law, of course, forbade “federal control of education.”

The Department of Education itself didn’t return until the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter claimed the country needed a full-fledged Cabinet department to make federal education programs more efficient and accountable. As in Reconstruction, much of Congress disagreed, and 200 House members voted against the legislation. Critics suggested this was little more than a political payback; Carter was the first presidential candidate endorsed by the National Education Association. Abolishing the department became a plank in Republican presidential platforms for the next 20 years.

Today, federal funds are less than 10 percent of elementary and secondary education spending. Localities and states pay the rest. But while federal funding is modest, Washington’s sway is not. Title 20, the corpus of federal education laws, runs more than 1,000 pages. The Department of Education spends $70 billion each year and issues reams of regulations and policy guidance, spelling out in exacting detail what states, localities and schools must do to keep the federal funds flowing. With that leverage, federal education policy has metastasized. The anxiety voiced by Rep. Rogers in 1867 was not unfounded.

No Child Left Behind, signed in 2002, is a case in point. NCLB was a significant retooling of Lyndon Johnson’s landmark education law. The original ESEA, in 1965, was 32 pages long; NCLB is 670 pages. Its reforms to Title I aimed to remedy the stubborn black-white, rich-poor achievement gap by toughening the conditions of aid to require states to adopt stronger education standards, test students more frequently and demonstrate all children were making “adequate yearly progress.” Schools that failed at these goals would be reorganized, and their students could be freed to attend other public schools. The new requirements had bite, and complaints about “punishing teachers,” “too much testing” and the subsequent rise of Common Core standards erupted from both left and right, with palpable anger about Washington intruding far too much into local schooling.

The pendulum tends to swing back over time, as the congressional education debates of the past decade have centered on how to reduce federal control of schooling without giving up the goal of educational equity. The Senate overwhelmingly passed a reauthorization of the education law in July, which dials back the federal demands. The House has passed its own bill that reduces the conditions of aid further or, in the words of Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), “helps provide American families the education system they deserve, not the one Washington wants.”

Perhaps the two chambers will reconcile their differences this autumn and gain President Barack Obama’s signature. If they do, a detente in education policy will set in for a time. But when the argument over education policy restarts, the fight over what business Washington has in the American classroom – an argument Henry Barnard and Andrew Johnson would recognize very well – will start anew.

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