The Bennett interregnum has come to a close at the Department of Education. The former secretary of education had his shortcomings, but the vice with which he was most frequently charged—being “confrontational,” failing to “build coalitions with educators”—was actually his greatest virtue. Bennett knew better than to attempt significant reform by backroom dealings and conciliation with professional educators. He frequently bypassed congressional committee meetings in order to work the talk shows. Instead of delivering speeches within the Beltway, he hit the road to Harvard and Stanford and 43 other colleges and universities; and as The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, “he rarely abided by the etiquette of not criticizing one’s host.” By such tactics he heightened public awareness of the dismal state of American education.
By contrast, the new secretary of education, Lauro Cavazos, promises to behave himself He has gone out of his way to renounce Bennett’s positions and called for an expanded Department of Education, more money (“the best funding possible”), and bilingual education. His performance at his confirmation hearings led Senator Kennedy to pronounce himself “very impressed.” At this writing, George Bush seems likely to keep Cavazos on, having made much of his delight at having the first Hispanic cabinet officer; and at any rate. Bush aides have made it known that whomever they appoint will be nothing like Bennett. Thus, inevitably, the Department of Education is reverting to the role for which it was designed—the federal government branch of the education establishment. Whether the administration is Republican or Democrat makes little difference.
A sample of what we can expect is the case of Shirley Curry, an Education Department official presently being pilloried in Congress for declining to fund a program called “Facing History and Ourselves.” Purportedly a Holocaust education program for highschoolers, it is reported by scholars who have reviewed it to minimize the role of the Nazi Party, preferring to attribute the genocide to the Pope, the Catholic Church, Martin Luther and the Lutheran Church in Germany, and Christian civilization in general; the program’s high-school audience is meant to believe, as the title implies, that the blame attaches to “ourselves.” When Dr. Curry first turned down the program two years ago, questions were raised in Congress, but Secretary Bennett stood by her. Scarcely had Bennett departed, however, when her critics returned, accusing Dr. Curry of “anti-Semitism.” The message is clear for any other Bennett holdovers in office: stand and deliver. (MK)