Today the issue of federal versus state control looms large over the issue of education. For example, some states mandate teaching intelligent design or creationism in which God created the world in seven days during public school science classes, while others forbid the practice. (Here’s a state-by-state map.) Meanwhile, the Common Core curriculum adopted by most states in the country is being attacked by Republicans as “Obamacore,” a parody on “Obamacare” meant to voice their displeasure with what many conservatives perceive as unwarranted government intrusion into education.
In 1916 the country was having the same debate. The U.S. Department of Education wouldn’t be created until 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, but there was a position titled Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Education in the Department of the Interior, at the time filled by P.P. Claxton. The bureau’s powers were incredibly small compared to the Education Department’s powers today, as the 1916 article explained:
His Bureau of Education has no authority whatever over the schools of the country, save those in the Territory of Alaska and a few Federal land-grant colleges. It cannot bring about uniformity, for example, by formulating a national program and then telling the States to adopt it. It has no authority over teachers or textbooks. It can do nothing to give to the country a certain sense of unanimity of thought by providing that at a given age all the children in all the States shall be studying the same things in about the same way,.. Those are only samples of the ways in which the United States cannot help.
Yet Claxton opposed an increased role in federal involvement. Keep in mind while reading the following quote from Claxton that he would have likely been the frontrunner to take on a role like current Education Secretary John King if such a position were made available:
“You mean if this country were France and we had a central, administrative control of its public education. No, I do not think it would be better than what we have. It would not be flexible enough. The State or the county administration is much closer to the actual work than the Federal Government could ever hope to be. It is true, of course, that in this or that section the schools might be better under Government supervision than they are under local control and management. But the accumulated experiences of all the local and State school bodies of the country will give us a better understanding of what we need than could be obtained from any scheme of national administration. The local democracy will make our schools stronger than central control ever could.”
Some politicians today agree. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said he would consider eliminating the Department of Education entirely. As did fellow Republican presidential contenders Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee. Ronald Reagan tried to in the 1980s but failed.
Why Not Educational Experiment Stations?: Nobody Yet Knows the Best Way to Teach Public School Children, Says Dr. P.P. Claxton, Federal Commissioner of Education
From July 9, 1916