A Conversation With Secretary Bell: 'Who Is Responsible For
Public and private schools can coexist in an educational system of "pluralism and diversity," insists Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.
In a conversation last week with Education Week reporter Eileen White, the Secretary called for greater emphasis on "enhancing excellence'' in public schools and "providing equity and fairness" for parents who choose private schools.
Calling himself a "public-school person" whose children were sent to public schools, Mr. Bell nonetheless defended the Administration's education-aid cuts and backing for tuition-tax credits.
Q:Were you disturbed by the findings of the Pentagon study of the vocational aptitude of young Americans?
A:Oh yes, it ought to disturb everyone. But I'm not surprised at it.
A:We've known for a long time that low-income children aren't doing as well in school as upper-income children. And it's unfortunate that still, most of our minorities--especially blacks and Hispanics--are crowded into the lower-income levels of our society. Despite all that we've said and all we've tried to do, they're still there. In addition to that, young people who go into the armed services often are those who aren't college-oriented. I'm not surprised at that, but it is a source of deep concern.
Q:As a Presidential adviser on education, do you regard the findings as a national problem, and do you envision any national solutions?
A:It's a national problem, a national disgrace. The solving of the problem is 90 percent state and local responsibility and 10 percent federal, if I can be so careless as to give percentages. And let me say, in my opinion, there are some things that we can do that would help to ameliorate the problem--now let me underscore help to ameliorate--that wouldn't cost more money.
Q:What are some of those things?
A:I have had a friendly debate with school boards ever since I took office. I think that our school boards have to pay more attention to policies, and the promulgation of policies, that will enhance excellence in the schools, will motivate students and teachers to reach higher. And you will say, 'well, what's this all about, how come you're focusing on the school boards?' And I say to you: Read the policy manuals for school boards. They're the governing boards, they're in charge of the schools, they set the policy.
There's not enough said in those policy manuals about learning and quality of learning. The policy manual is filled with bus routes, personnel matters, and administrative concerns. What we need are standards adopted by the boards of education.
Have you had a chance to read about some of the studies of nie (the National Institute of Education) about 'time on task'? We're eroding time on task in our schools, because school board policies aren't protecting it. School is let out far too many times. There are only 180 days of school, nine months in the school year. It is not uncommon to find the library closed down the last two weeks.
Q:Previous administrations have used a "carrot and stick" approach to getting schools to adopt federal policies. Now that you're offering schools a shorter carrot, how can you get them to, for example, emphasize excellence?
A:The question is: Whose responsibility is it to emphasize excellence? Should I be getting them to do that, or should those to whom the responsibility has been delegated get them to do that?
Q:Isn't it our responsibility as a nation?
A:Yes, it is. But is it the federal government's responsibility? I think I have a responsibility to admonish and offer constructive criticism, to draw together data on the national level and draw comparisons, to revise, to encourage, and so on. But the main responsibility for financing schools is given to the states and localities.
Have you noted that lately we've been letting school out for parent-teacher conferences and for teacher-preparation days? We're not spending enough time on task. The school board manual needs to lend encouragement for high achievement. School board policies ought to prohibit promotions unless you meet certain standards, unless you're not capable of performing. Automatic promotions, automatic diplomas, all of that.
Did you read the article about the man in Virginia whom the board fired because he wanted to end social promotions of students? That's what I'm talking about. When public officials fail to perform their duty, we ought to be called to task for it. I think school board members are great people, and I've worked for them all my life, and I respect them and admire them. But they're not doing their duty as far as quality is concerned in education, and it has to start there.
Q:Although you personally are emphasizing excellence, do you think you may have a credibility problem with public-school officials because you represent an Administration that is backing tuition-tax credits and proposing to give tax exemptions to racially segregated private schools?
A:No. There may be one perceived by you. I don't think that a modest tuition-tax credit will harm the public schools. I think one the size of [last fall's] District of Columbia initiative would, but this Administration isn't talking about that. And this Administration is not proposing to grant tax exemptions to segregated schools. In fact, we have proposed a legislative initiative to the contrary.
Q:You've said several times that the federal government doesn't have primary responsibility for education. How, then, are we going to solve such large national problems as recruiting quality teachers, preparing students for a technological future, providing equal opportunity, and so on? Aren't we in danger of relegating the disadvantaged students to a 'ghetto-ized' system of public education for 'the underclass,' while we emphasize excellence for middle-class and private-school students?
A:Well, I wouldn't emphasize it for the middle-class students. I'd emphasize it for everyone. And I'd say that rather than abandoning our system, which is saying that it's a state and local responsibility, let's get them, let's persuade them, to do their duty. So I'm going to do everything I can to persuade them to do it.
Q:It sometimes seems that you are engaged in a campaign to convince the public that their fears about public schools have a basis in fact--all over the country. Is this Administration trying to dissolve the concept of the common school?
A:No. That's why I'm expressing my constructive criticism. If you care about something and you see areas where it ought to be improved, you've got to speak up about them. That's why I said what I did about problems with the school boards. I think that our public schools are, by and large, pretty good. But they're not good enough. That's the point I'm making. They could be so much better.
Q:The state of Mississippi has the lowest per-pupil expenditure in the country for education, and it has some of the most disadvantaged, rural, and isolated students. The federal share of spending for education there is now 25 percent. What is your advice to Mississippi when the federal government starts pulling out? How can the state make it up?
A:First of all, I say we're not pulling out. We're trimming back a bit because of the enormous budget pressure we feel. Incidentally, in the long run, that will be even better for them because it will strengthen their tax base. If we can't get our economy turned around, and if we persist where we've been going for two decades now, we won't have a strong economic base. It's all a matter of priorities; it's a matter of how much in tax bonds the parents of these children want to sacrifice for their education. I don't think that it's the case that Mississippi can't afford to educate their children. I think that they have other priorities.
Q:Can you afford to cut billions of dollars from the federal Education Department's budget, taking big cuts out of guaranteed student loans, Title I, and handicapped education, while at the same time proposing tuition-tax credits--in what is supposed to be a "budget driven" year?
A:We give tax breaks to encourage certain elements of our society to do certain things--and we've always used tax policy for that purpose. That's why we have tax breaks for energy, for example, and a lot of other things. We give a tax break when you buy municipal bonds for schools, and so on.
Q:What are we encouraging with the tuition tax credit?
A:We're encouraging people to spend money on the education of their children in private schools. If we're going to give a tax break to encourage certain ends to happen, what's wrong with giving a tax break in the area of education? Are private schools bad? Are they an evil and a threat to our society? Or are they part of the pluralism and diversity of this society?
Q:But private schools already exist and students already go to them--10 percent of all students--so to give a tax break to encourage more students to go to private schools, is that the aim?
A:Well, I think one of the aims is to provide equity and fairness. And there are those who feel that it is only fair to give some small portion of the tax break for someone who's paying out of their own pocket to educate a child in a private school for reasons of their own.
Let me emphasize to you that I am a public-school person. Out of my own choice, I haven't sent any of my own children to private school. I have a fifth grader now, and I chose public schools; I can afford to send my youngster to a private institution, but I like the public schools. My fifth-grade son Peter is going to Tuckahoe Elementary in Arlington [Va.], and I can tell you that I don't think there's a better elementary school in this area. I've always sent my children to public schools. I believe in them. I think they're great.
Q:If there were a tuition tax credit next year, would you switch?
A:Unh, unh. No.
Q:Why is that?
A:Because I like the public schools. I think there are values there that I prefer for my children--learning how to make it in the mainstream of society and all the rest of it. And I feel that the public schools, by and large, are really doing a good job.
Q:Regarding Title I, at the budget briefing a couple of weeks ago, you mentioned that the cuts in Title I that you're proposing for fiscal 1983 would reduce the cost per child from about $525 to about $400. Your own Title I office has said that the $400 cost per child is mainly achieved in states where teachers' salaries are not high--states like Alabama. How can inner-city, unionized school systems achieve that lower cost per child when Title I is so "labor-intensive"?
A:First of all, the basic salary structure for teachers is supposed to be provided by the state of Alabama, not us. We come on after that's there. We come on with this supplemental assistance, you see. It would just be vile reasoning for me to peddle the logic that it's going to be easy to absorb these Title I cuts. It's going to be painful, I admit that. I'm just saying that it's 'do-able' under these times and strains.
We're involved in almost a financial and economic emergency in this country, and I wonder why some of our citizens--and they're bright people--aren't aware of that. You have to worry about this economy as well as worry about the other values that we're talking about.
When I was the chief executive officer of the higher-education system out in Utah, we had nine institutions. The constitution requires a balanced budget and, if revenue falls off, the governor has to issue an executive order, cutting back. I was there for five years. And three out of those five years I had my budget cut. Why? Automobile sales were down, housing construction was down. The big-ticket items that brought in sales taxes that supported our institutions were going down. Why? Because of Japanese automobiles, German Volkswagens, and inflation and interest rates that were so high that people could not afford to buy a home. Housing construction gone to pieces. Well, that's the other side of this story. We've got to square that around.
Q:So what you are telling students is that they've got to give things up now so that their children can do better. Not go to a private college. Go to a state-supported institution.
A:No. I don't think that has to happen. I'm saying that we've got to tuck in our belts a little bit. It isn't as extreme as what you're saying. We'll have to have a period of austerity here for awhile, which won't hurt us. We're all spoiled, including me. We're all spoiled in this country.
Giving up going to private colleges--our proposals will not force that to happen. The loan and the grant volume will still be there. We're cutting the basic opportunity grant a couple of hundred bucks. It's going to pinch a little. The work-study program will be cut. We're concentrating our resources on the lower-income people. But a young man or woman who wants to go to school is still going to find a lot of financial aid there.
Q:Speaking of college money, isn't maintaining aid to the traditionally black institutions, the Title III program, mainly a symbolic gesture? Even though the colleges themselves are getting the facilities and other money, the students who would go to them are feeling this pinch from the reduction in support for higher-education loans and grants. Are you really helping black students by maintaining that support for black higher-education facilities?
A:Sure we are. By facilities, I don't mean capital outlay. That isn't what it is about. It's strengthening the quality of the academic offerings.
Q:But those schools traditionally do not have large endowments with which to give their own loans and grants.
A:That's why we're focusing our loans and resources there. You take the income level of those youngsters. They're going to be able to qualify for a basic-opportunity grant. Somebody in a $30,000 income range will have to go to college on loans. Even there, you can pick up $5,500 if you have to have it. Even there.
Q:Last year you proposed to merge Title I, programs for handicapped students, and bilingual education into a block grant to school systems. Now under the President's "New Federalism" proposal, compensatory education, which I am given to understand includes bilingual and handicapped education, is going to be retained by the federal government and considered a federal responsibility. Where did this difference come from? Does that represent a change in your philosophy about the federal role, or does keeping Title I and P.L. 94-142 at the federal level represent the most politically viable role?
A:The attempt to get these programs into a block grant doesn't mean that it isn't a federal role. You can offer them in block-grant form. It's your means of providing federal assistance. We never did propose that if we put them into a block grant, that then the next step would be to eliminate our support.
Q:Didn't last year's block-grant proposal mean repealing the laws, repealing P.L. 94-142 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?
A:This has to do with your administrative philosophy. It has to do with how much control and red tape and detail that you want to have. Not whether or not we wanted to have a federal support grant. I have never advocated the phasing out of our support in what used to be Title I, now Chapter I, or our commitment to the handicapped or these groups. But I have been a believer, since I've worked there for a long time, that it's hard to have one federal shoe, as they said over at the National Governor's Conference, with 50 federal feet.
That's the point. It's hard to have a categorical program that will fit South Carolina and Maine, because they're separate programs. And that's the value of a block grant for program consolidation. That's what we were talking about. So I don't see anything inconsistent or politically expedient about that at all. You know, in this town, you practice the art of the possible. There's no question about that. We tried that. It didn't go with Congress. So we're looking for other ways.
Q:You withdrew the Lau regulations, an action that pleased many educators. Now I understand you have a new bilingual-education proposal that will allow school systems to use whatever method works on the local level, such as English-as-a-second-language or English-immersion classes. I understand also that you won't require that curricula include teaching a student's native culture, which was one of the components of the Lau regulations. Does your proposal leave school systems open to lawsuits similar to the Lau v. Nichols case, because they're not designing programs for a particular student?
A:No, I don't think that will happen because we won't be leaving the schools without guidelines for the programs. They'll be serving the children who need the special instruction.
Q:Mr. Bell, if you weren't forced to cut the Education Department's budget again this year--if you could retain the $14.8-billion budget the department had in fiscal 1981--what would you spend the money on?
A:I would try to focus more resources than we've been doing on the development side. I think that we can greatly improve the school practice. We could spend more money to encourage the implementation of programs that work. There's a vast amount of research evidence that needs the implementation part. So I would increase that side considerably. I would try to serve as many disadvantaged children as I could. I would try to focus upon unemployed teenage youth and their problems. I'd concentrate, I think, in those areas. I'd try to build some incentives to get those who are responsible for education to improve programs, to move in some directions where they need to go.
Q:When do you expect to be back in Utah?
A:I expect to be back there at such time as we get the legislation passed to dismantle the Department of Education and establish a foundation. I'd originally thought that would be by the fall of 1982. There's just an outside possibility that it won't happen quite that soon.