Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Reagan Years: Bennett - Data and Cuts
In Bennett's view, the collection and dissemination of program evaluation data was a central purpose of the federal department. "This department has no function more important than the production of high quality research and accurate information about the condition of all levels of American education," he said in July of 1985. "The American people, equipped with the right answers, equipped with what's true, equipped with the facts, can in my view go about the business of fixing their schools." Even as Bennett used data generated by federally funded education research centers to push for change, however, he blamed those very centers for consuming too much of the federal education budget. He pushed hard to reorganize the government's education research activities and abolished the National Institute of Education. He brought its functions, as well as those of the National Center for Education Statistics (founded in 1972), under the purview of assistant secretary Finn at the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI).
Throughout his years at the federal Department of Education, Bennett's view of America's public schools waffled repeatedly. In 1985, when he joined the Department, he thought the schools were falling apart. By 1986, however, he said that "the movement to raise academic achievement standards and restore discipline [was] showing results." By 1987, the relationship between federal funding cuts and (purported) school improvement had become a major political issue in Congress. "American education has improved on this Administration's watch," Bennett argued, but Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. (R-CT) disagreed, saying that any improvements were due to Congress's rejection of Bennett's budgets. When Congress criticized Bennett for cutting education budgets too severely, Bennett tried to pin his cuts on Congress's own balanced-budget amendments of 1985, sponsored by Senators Phil Gramm (R-TX) and Warren Rudman (R-NH), as well as Ernest Hollings (D-SC). Congress refused to accept this justification, however. According to Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), it was "inconceivable" that $5.5 billion in federal budget cuts out of a total of $19 billion could come from education.