By now it should be obvious that “education reform” is a fraud. Its primary goal has not been to rescue children from public school malpractice, but to rescue the schools from angry parents and taxpayers.

The 1980’s saw per-pupil spending climb by about one-third beyond inflation, almost entirely for doing more of the same rather than for basic changes such as decentralization. It’s as if we had “reformed” the Pentagon by pumping more money into $400 toilet seats. Not surprisingly, test scores barely budged. The national average on the Scholastic Aptitude Test actually fell during the late 1980’s—the very period when the supposed “reforms” were taking effect.

So we now have the results of a decade-long experiment: can federal education programs promote genuine excellence? Those in the Reagan administration who said “No” from the start, including myself, decisively lost the in-house power struggle. The winners were the bureaucratic apparatchiki such as Terrel Bell and the neoconservative climbers such as William Bennett.

Ten years ago the neocons seemed to have more in common with traditional conservatives than with the apparatchiki. After they took power their rhetoric continued to be conservative, but their actions changed: Bell and Bennett ended up with few real policy differences. Neither did more than the bare minimum for vouchers or tuition tax credits. Neither made the case that federal education programs should be pulverized not just because they cost too much but because they are bad for education.

Bennett gave brilliant speeches against the decadent policies of Stanford University and the National Education Association, but he failed to combine those speeches with concrete changes in the one bastion of decadence under his own supervision. He did not achieve a single major reform in the department’s programs, budget, or regulations; he and Bell left behind a bureaucracy that still operates in pretty much the same way as when Jimmy Carter left office. Now as then, its net effect is to make schools worse.

One of the “discoveries” of contemporary social science research, confirming what observers with common sense knew all along, is that certain elements are crucial to effective schooling. Most schools with proven academic success share several ingredients that most unsuccessful schools lack. Those ingredients are qualitative, not quantitative: mediocre schools often spend lavishly, outstanding ones often have modest budgets. The desirable qualities are the kind that centralized government agencies cannot nurture but almost always strangle.

Effective schools have strong principals who act not as paper-pushers but as academic leaders. Their teachers have a sense of teamwork. Their halls and classrooms are orderly: teachers, students, and parents all know that discipline is taken seriously. They concentrate on the traditional academic subjects, not on fads. They reward excellence in those subjects and discourage mediocrity. They are committed to moral and intellectual values that are shared by both teachers and parents.

When the U.S. Department of Education is working normally—just quietly humming away, not making headlines—it is undermining every one of these precious qualities.

The typical public school principal in the United States has less authority today than ever before. Decisions that he used to make in consultation with teachers are now made by central district offices, state and federal agencies, and courts. Parents looking for someone to hold accountable find that the buck stops nowhere.

On some issues the Department of Education’s regulation-writers openly dictate to local schools. Its Office for Civil Rights, for example, requires that schools must have coed gym classes. Its Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs pressures schools toward maximum use of languages other than English. The department enforces a total of more than one thousand pages of fine-print laws and regulations—a standing refutation of the 1950’s claim that federal aid would not promote federal control.

More subtly, the very structure of the department is biased toward centralization within each state. Its programs are so numerous and so complicated that they require thousands of administrative intermediaries within the state education agencies and the central offices of local school districts. These employees are often paid directly from federal funds; their primary loyalty is to the federal programs to which they owe their jobs. In a bureaucratic “invasion of the body snatchers,” the department has in effect produced 50 clones of itself in the state capitals. The average state education agency gets around half its administrative budget from Washington.

The “reform” agenda promoted by Terrel Bell and William Bennett has made these agencies even fatter. A former state bureaucrat. Bell had an incurably top-down vision of “reform”; he saw it as a collection of orders from the state capital to local officials. The preferred tool for his 1983 National Commission on Excellence in Education and its many imitators was the omnibus statute enacted by several state legislatures, including those in Florida and California, which specified more minutely than ever what local educators must and must not do. Instead of opening the schools to the stimulus of deregulation and competition, the Reagan years were spent trying to homogenize the least homogenizable of all social services.

The federal government is also an enemy of common sense in school discipline. Here the leading villains are the courts, but agencies such as the Department of Education and the Legal Services Corporation have played important supporting roles. Through rulings such as Goss v. Lopez (1975), judges have gradually legitimized the view that children have the same constitutional rights as adults. To suspend or expel a student these days is to risk a federal case; if the student sues, his lawyers can get research ammunition from the department’s Office for Civil Rights and the LSC’s Center for Law and Education.

The Office for Civil Rights has repeatedly pressured schools with large minority enrollments to keep detailed records of all suspensions, broken down by race and sex. The data must be available on demand to OCR’s army of field inspectors. The agency’s tacit assumption is that any “disparity” must be due to racism or sexism. (It is also suspicious of disparities in tracking and promotions.) One disgruntled educator told me that he was tempted to adopt a policy of “punishment by quota” to keep OCR at bay.

Discipline is not the only issue in which Washington’s values clash with the values of many or most parents. Another is feminism. Here, too, the Department of Education is anything but neutral: the grant-givers at its Women’s Educational Equity program and the social scientists at its Office of Educational Research and Improvement simply take it for granted that the only value worth considering is “equality.” They refuse to entertain the possibility that any behavioral difference between the sexes might be caused by anything except discrimination. They use tax dollars for evangelism, subsidizing curricula and teacher-training programs designed to bring their feminist orthodoxy to a captive audience in the nation’s classrooms.

Some of these grants, for example, have gone to American University’s Mid-Atlantic Center for Sex Equity for the purpose of “changing teacher behavior” toward boys and girls in class. The directors of this grantee, David and Myra Sadker, believe that teachers must give absolutely equal attention to both sexes—even if their male students are more likely to act aggressively, disruptively, or in other ways that demand more attention. When one brave teacher wrote an article charging that such projects are ideologically biased, the Sadkers responded by admitting it: “What is the other side of this issue? Is it that equity is not a good idea?”

During my brief tenure at the Office of Educational Research and Improvement—which I tried to abolish—we received a grant proposal from New York University psychologist Paul Vitz, who wanted to study how public school textbooks treat religion. The reaction from the staff researchers was as fierce as anything I’ve experienced in Washington: one called the proposal the worst he had seen in his entire career. We approved it anyway, and Vitz proceeded to write what is now recognized as the definitive work on this subject. His findings have been accepted by groups ranging from the Free Congress Foundation to People for the American Way. But the bureaucrats never dropped their opposition. They even succeeded in pressuring Secretary Bennett not to publish the Vitz study. No matter how scholarly, research that treated religion as a serious social and historical reality was simply unacceptable.

The more the public schools are dominated by centralized agencies committed to such militant feminism and secularism, the more families will find themselves alienated from those schools. No matter which side is right, such ideological polarization is incompatible with the shared values and mutual trust essential for effective schooling.

Equally incompatible with such schooling is curricular faddism. Headline-obsessed Washington inevitably gets caught up in such fads: consumer education and environmental education in the 1970’s, computers in the 1980’s. It then helps create a climate that pressures local educators to rush into these novelties before they know enough to make intelligent decisions. Terrel Bell’s “technology initiative” provided plenty of grants and contracts for well-connected consultants, but we have yet to see any proof that it made children smarter.

In 1979, when the House of Representatives agreed by a tiny margin to create a cabinet-level Department of Education, it looked like a Pyrrhic victory. The electorate clearly understood that the new department was a payoff to special interests, and Ronald Reagan’s pledge to abolish it was an effective applause line on the campaign trail. A year earlier the House had actually passed tuition tax credits; it took a goal-line stand by the Carter administration to stop the bill in the Senate. After nearly two decades of steady growth in bureaucratized schooling and steady decline in academic performance, the stage was set for a counterrevolution.

The Reagan-Bush administration threw that chance away. Perhaps some future generation will recover it.