The Department of Education’s first seeds were planted in 1866 in a communique issued by the National Association of State and City School Superintendents. The following year Congress established the U.S. Office of Education. It had a staff of six and a budget of $13,000. It’s mission was to collect statistics. From there the idea grew.
As G. Gregory Moo notes, these 19th century petitioners for greater federal involvement in U.S. education, wanted, “what has never been and never can be – federal assistance without federal control.” They wanted Congress to create a bureau “without it being invested with any official control of the school authorities therein…Indeed, the highest value of such a bureau would be its quickening and informing, rather than its authoritative and direct control.”
In 1979, the teachers unions scored a coup with the creation of a cabinet-level agency to set education policy and advance the interests of its members, which includes collective bargaining. For a thorough history read G. Gregory Moo’s book, and Myron Lieberman’s, The Teachers Unions.
A short answer to the question:
Why is the Department in Education in Wisconsin – a state which we might otherwise assume is free to set its own policies on this subject.
Because states and local school districts are intertwined with the National Education Association the Department of Education. That explains the recent two-day summit held by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He’s trying to find a way to bridge the growing labor-management divide in thousands of local school districts. That is, Mr. Duncan is cabinet-secretary-cum-labor negotiator who is going to “do everything [he] can to bring governors to the negotiating table.”