Questions Surround Administration's Education Policy
Although President Reagan has not yet announced his decision on the fate of the Department of Education, Secretary Terrel H. Bell is actively promoting the national-foundation option that he has recommended.
The Secretary has recently held a meeting--in the White House--with several state and local officials, which knowledgeable observers say would not have been permitted had the foundation structure not been generally (if not publicly) approved.
He has also been holding off-the-record meetings with key Congressional officials to win their support for the plan when it comes before the Congress, as it inevitably must. And he has been advocating his plan in a coast-to-coast series of public speeches.
In a memorandum to the President last summer, Mr. Bell outlined a detailed plan, complete with dates, to "make the country and Congress receptive to a radical change from status quo." The memo called for speeches, meetings, and special briefings to prepare the media, the public, and leaders of Congress for President Reagan's decision about the department. And, although he is somewhat behind schedule, Secretary Bell appears to be following the plan fairly closely.
But even as the Secretary is working to build support for his plan, the Reagan Adminstration seems to be having difficulty reaching a decision on what observers say is a more vital issue: the federal role in education.
President Reagan has yet to articulate a federal education policy, stating only his in-Continued on Page XX
tention to dismantle the Education Department.
Currently, officials of the White House office of policy development, the Office of Management and Budget (omb), and the Education Department are said by sources to be working on three interdependent proposals that together may define the Administration's federal role.
Those proposals include the fiscal 1982 education budget, which Administration officials say will be reduced from its current $12.58-billion operating level by a supplemental recissions bill, which the President is likely to introduce in February.
At that same time, the President is scheduled to disclose his proposed fiscal 1983 budget, which officials say will contain large budget reductions and new block-grants packages. (See article on page 00.)
The size of the budget for both years, Administration officials say, will depend on the details of the proposal to eliminate the Education Department.
And, officials say, the reverse is true: The size, and power, of the education foundation will be determined by its budget.
Officials describe a debate between conservative Presidential deputies and more moderate Administrations officials. The conservative officials are said to regard a series of huge budget cuts as a de facto way to eliminate the department--a result the omb director, David A. Stockman, has called "zeroing-out" education from the federal budget.
More moderate Administration officials, such as Secretary Bell, advocate a decreased, but visible, federal role in education that would include fewer regulations, block grants in lieu of discretionary grants, and a "supportive rather than coercive" relationship to states and school systems.
Sixty Percent Reduction
A proposal by the Office of Management and Budget (omb) for fiscal 1983 illustrates this debate. The plan would radically reduce the department's budget in 1983 and 1984, leaving the education office with less than $9 billion to spend in 1984--a 60 percent reduction in three years.
In addition, that plan would dissolve the National Institute of Education--the department's research branch--by 1985, even though the Secretary advocates a strong federal commitment to education research.
The debate has left the Secretary's foundation proposal in what one official described as a "holding pattern" within the Administration. It has also left the proposal almost without support from those whose support is most vital to its passage.
Education lobbyists--in spite of complaints over the years from educators about federal intrusion into local affairs--have formed a coalition of 150 national groups to fight for the department's survival. They favor that not necessarily because they support the structure, says one lobbyist, but because they are "afraid that abolishing the department is just the first step in a 'hidden agenda' to eliminate the federal role entirely."
In addition, there are signs that the Congressmen will not support an effort to dismantle ed and reduce federal support because of already-strong criticism from their constituents about the cuts in education programs enacted this summer in the budget "reconciliation" bill.
In meetings during the past two weeks with key Republican senators and congressmen, the Secretary presented the legislators with an outline of his proposed education foundation.
In what sources describe as a concession to conservatives, the six-page outline says that after many department programs are eliminated or spun off to other agencies, the remaining 32 programs "would be reduced to four consolidations and block grants."
'Devolve to States'
The outline also states that those "block grants...would eventually devolve to the states," and that "student grants and loans...would eventually devolve to states and individuals." Department officials would not comment on the meaning of these statements.
The Bell outline also describes support for equal-educational-opportunity programs, such as compensatory education, as "interim," although informational, statistical, and research services for education are said to be "continuing."
The proposal reportedly received a mixed reception on Capitol Hill. One Congressional aide said the foundation proposal is considered "the worst of both worlds."
"Some Congressmen want total elimination of the department and its programs, and others still favor a Cabinet-level adviser for education," the aide said.
In an effort to rally support for what Mr. Bell is said to regard as a "compromise" proposal, the Secretary recently held the first of a series of meetings at the White House to explain his foundation proposal to state and local officials.
At least three of those who attended the Dec. 2 meeting--Gov. Fob James of Alabama, Superintendent Joseph E. Brezeinski of the Denver school system, and Tennessee's education commissioner, Robert L. McElrath--later expressed support for the foundation.
"I told Secretary Bell I thought that if the department were abolished or changed, they should also do away with many of the rules and regulations and reporting requirements. They should be examined and cut back to the absolute minimum required," said Mr. Brezeinski.
Trial Period Favored
"I know that many members of the education establishment favor a trial period for the department to see what happens, but I'm not so concerned whether there's a department or a foundation. I'm more concerned with the effect," he said.
Another meeting participant, Evelyn Gainsglass, who represented the National Governors Association, said she "found it extremely disturbing."
"From the governors' perspective," she said, "I found no information about how the foundation would deal with states. I didn't get any sense of recognition or attention as to how the federal government, using a foundation, would interact with the states.
"The other part that really troubled me was that I didn't come away from that meeting with a sense that Secretary Bell felt that civil-rights access was an important matter to him," she said.
Another participant quoted the Secretary as saying that "our civil-rights office has been a problem." The participant, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Bell did not favor transferring the civil-rights office to the Justice Department, as other Administration officials have advocated, because Justice has too many "ultra-liberal lawyers.''
The Administration's 1983 budget proposal is likely to add fuel to criticisms of the Secretary's commitment to civil rights. The proposal would reduce the budget of the department's office for civil rights by 30 percent--which sources say would significantly reduce its effectiveness. And federal handicapped-education programs--which the civil-rights office monitors under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act--would be reduced to state block grants.
In spite of the criticism of his national education foundation, Mr. Bell reportedly claims to have one strong advocate in the White House. Several participants in the White House meeting recount that Mr. Bell said the foundation proposal did not originate with him.
The Secretary gave credit for the idea to Edwin Meese III, the Presidential counselor, who he said suggested an education foundation to Mr. Bell last year while interviewing him for the position as education secretary.