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Bell Neglecting Public Schools, State Superintendents Charge

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Washington--The nation's chief state school officials, in a markedly emotional meeting last week, voiced extreme displeasure with the Reagan Administration's posture towards public education, particularly its intention to seek legislation that would introduce a system of tuition tax credits for families with children attending private schools.

Several members of the Council of Chief State School Officers, who met here at the invitation of U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, vented much of their anger and frustration on their host, who they claimed has been remiss in his responsibility to promote public education as a member of the Cabinet and to defend it from the budget-paring activities of the Office of Management and Budget.

Phillip E. Runkel, Michigan's chief state school officer, said that the Administration "is losing the support of state superintendents, and without question that is a consequence of our perception that we do not have a strong advocate in the federal government."

'People Suffering'

"It seems as if the Administration hasn't the slightest idea of what is happening out in the states," he explained. "The President tells us to give his economic recovery plan time to work. But when you're a drowning man, and the waves are breaking over your head, promises of recovery don't help much. There are people suffering in my state, and we see no help from the federal government."

"We're perhaps more emotional than we've been in a long time because we're worried about commitment to public education," Roy Truby, state superintendent of schools in West Virginia, told Mr. Bell.

"You talk about private schools. Do you realize that many of us in the last four years have seen private schools growing at such a rate that we can't find them, we don't know where they are?" he continued. ''We say they must meet certain standards. They say, 'Mr. Superintendent, the state board sets your standards; God sets ours."'

Mr. Bell responded to his critics by saying that he wished the Administration "didn't have to cut the federal budget as much as we have, but there are precious few other places for us to turn."

"The strong medicine of economic recovery is necessary, we have to suffer for a while," he said. "It's a tough dilemma, but we think that we're right."

Mr. Bell added that he has "been very careful not to be out front expressing Ted Bell's philosophy of education, which would not represent the point of view of this Administration."

"I know that you are impatient and frustrated at this time," he continued, "but we are coming along. You said that I should be a strong advocate for public education, but you must remember that there is a strong concern within this Administration for private education and tuition tax credits."

"Private schools do a lot of public good," he continued. "I know where you are coming from when you tell me that it is your perception that the federal government downgrades public education by assisting private education. But that's not the philosophy I hear from the President. I assure you that President Reagan is not anti-public-education."

Charlie G. Williams, state superintendent of schools in South Carolina, said, however, that he was offended by the Administration's plea that he and his colleagues should not resist the tax-credit proposal, calling it "the most naive statement that I have ever heard."

Acceptance of a tax-credit plan, he said, "will undoubtedly foster the creation of a dual system of education for the rich and the poor in our society, and we should know by now that such a system is not in the nation's best interest.

'Public Education'

"I am not angry, but disillusioned," Mr. Williams continued. "We listened to 10 speakers [from the Education Department] yesterday and not one used the words 'public education.' I think that says a lot about where this Administration stands."

"This is a compassionate group, and it bothers us to see funding for Title I and other programs for the disadvantaged going down, down, down," added Calvin M. Frazier, Colorado's superintendent of schools. ''We're asking ourselves 'What did we do wrong during the last 20 years?"'

"We understand the President's desire to reduce the federal deficit," he continued.

"But during his campaign, he talked about pulling the nation together. Now, all we see is aid to the disadvantaged decreasing while aid to the well-to-do is increasing. Instead of pulling the nation together, we see the pulling apart of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots."'

Many of the council members' concerns were expressed in a public statement, issued jointly with the National Association of State Boards of Education, whose legislative affairs committee also met here last week.

The statement said that the Administration's proposals for sharp cuts in the education budget, the elimination of the Education Department, and for tuition tax credits "have been made in the absence of rational and careful consideration of the role of the federal government."

"This shift in education policy alarms many citizens who believe that a strong system of public education is central to the solutions to critical national problems," the statement read.

The state superintendents and school board members added that adoption of the tax-credit proposal "would jeopardize the education of the overwhelming majority of the nation's youth, threatening our nation's future."

Defining the Role

In releasing the statement, Wilson C. Riles, the council's president and California's superintendent of education, said that the two education organizations plan to develop a document "clearly defining what we believe the federal role in education is, and should be."

"The Administration has moved in the direction of dismantling the Education Department and drastically altering the federal role in education without seeking a national consensus of what people want that role to be," Mr. Riles explained. "We plan to take leadership in that area because we see no one else addressing that issue." The document, he added, will be ready for publication by June.

Rallying Support

Mr. Riles also said that state superintendents and school board members plan to fight further cuts in the federal education budget this year by rallying support for public education in each of their states.

"Many members of our two organizations are elected officials, and have a substantial political base to work from," he said. "And those of us who were appointed to office also have a large network of political contacts. We want the Administration to remember that we are not a bunch of political eunuchs."

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