A 'Frustrating' Year for Secretary Bell
One year after Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell recommended converting the Education Department into a small "non-intrusive' foundation, his plan--supported by President Reagan and circulated on Capitol Hill as a draft bill--has not even been formally introduced in the Congress. In fact, the proposal is widely regarded as a potential political embarrassment to the Administration and as a "dead" issue in the 97th Congress.
The Secretary's plan, detailed in a 91-page memorandum to the President, called for the transfer of many offices of the department to other federal agencies, the reduction of the more than 100 education programs to a handful, and a large-scale modification of regulations that accompanied those programs.
Justification for the proposal--which the Secretary acknowledged would represent a radical shift from Democratic policies that had been the basis for the growth in the federal role--was sought in a strict-constructionist reading of the U.S. Constitution. Because the Constitution does not specifically grant responsibility for education to the federal government, such responsibility belongs to the states, the document reasoned.
The Secretary, in a recent interview, acknowledged that the bill to accomplish his objective will not be introduced, if at all, until after the coming elections, "when we'll have a greater willingness to face this. We don't have the political support right now to get the department dismantled. For us to press it when even our friends [in the Congress] are asking us not to is political foolishness," he said.
Other officials agree that the Administration's reasons for not pressuring the Congress to pass the bill have as much to do with practical politics as they do with ideology. In a mid-term election year, Congressmen do not want to antagonize voters--ranging from conservative members of the so-called New Right to teachers'-union activists--who feel strongly on either side of the issue.
But the apparent lack of interest in the foundation bill, which the Secretary had hoped would be enacted in time for the coming school year, is also said by observers to be symbolic of the dilemma facing political moderates such as Mr. Bell, whose foundation proposal is an attempt to reach a compromise between two widely divergent viewpoints.
Those viewpoints are represented, on the one hand, by the "education community"--groups of educators and organizations that lobbied in favor of the creation of the department three years ago. Such groups, which rely on federal funds to support their programs, view the foundation proposal as a signal that federal support to education would be eliminated.
Representatives of politically conservative organizations, on the other hand, regard any federal role in education as a symbol of government control of education. The most conservative of them say they believe that federal support for public schools--which educate 90 percent of the nation's students--unfairly penalizes the private-school sector.
The foundation plan, which would retain "six broad avenues" that the Secretary believes are central to the federal role in education, satisfies neither group.
The plan would include as primary functions of the foundation: data gathering and analysis, educational research, financial assistance to college students, promotion of educational equity, advocacy of improvement in school programs, and limited financial support to states and local schools.
Education-group spokesmen argue that the plan is too radical a reorganization; conservative spokesmen contend that the foundation would retain too many of the current functions of the department. Both groups have lobbied Congress against the foundation proposal, and both have been among the Secretary's loudest detractors during the past year.
"The left and the right"--as the Secretary describes them--have contributed to his feelings of "more discouragement than encouragement" in reviewing the events that have occurred since he first advocated a federal foundation for education. "I've felt more defeat and more frustration than I have success and encouragement. No question about that. It's really been tough going."
Mr. Bell said he took office believing that educators, who have long complained about the 25-year growth of the federal role in education, would support his attempt to halt that growth.
"I've been disappointed in the willingness of the education community to accept federal control just like it was a good thing," he said. "I don't think it is."
At a recent meeting in Colorado with 150 superintendents from around the country, Mr. Bell said, he was "disappointed with how much federal control they seemed to be asking for," and added:
"I've spent all my life working for local school boards and state boards, except for the brief tours of duty [in the federal government], so I have a strong commitment to that. I come out of that arena, that's where I work and where I plan to be again. I have a level of understanding of how the system works.
"What I've wanted to do [is] to preserve the authority and some reasonable amount of autonomy for local and state school officials. It's almost like some of the governing boards and school executives don't want it."
Criticism from the right, Mr. Bell claimed, was based less on an ideological difference than on a symbolic one.
Attacks on his activities in the conservative press--mainly in the weekly newspaper Human Events and in Conservative Digest--and demands for his resignation in the form of a national letter-writing campaign to the President, are rooted in a belief that "an educator ought not to be the Secretary of Education" in so conservative an Administration, he contended.
Mr. Bell has attempted to quell the rancor from the conservative community by including such events as the Conservative Political Action Conference in his public-speaking schedule. In addition, he has hired as a department consultant a New Right activist who scrutinized the department's grants-making process for a widely-publicized article in Conservative Digest.
The consultant, Susan Phillips, provided the magazine with information about federal grants to liber-al groups such as the National Organization for Women and push-excel--a process the magazine criticized as ''funding the left."
The April 1982 issue in which the article appeared also called for the Secretary's resignation.
The hiring of Ms. Phillips to examine the process from the inside, Mr. Bell said, was based on a "feel[ing] that involvement begets understanding."
"We think that things appear differently from the outside than they do from the inside," the Secretary noted.
In attempting to appease conservative critics while at the same time courting the support of the education community for his foundation plan, Mr. Bell insisted that he would not be persuaded that his original recommendation was impossible to achieve. "You don't always get your way in what you want with the Congress and in changes that you want to take place in the bureaucracy--especially in this town," he said.
Nevertheless, he added, "I'm intending to hang in there. I'm having my debates and vigorous ones, and the decibel rating is increasing from both the right and the left."
Although conservatives and liberals have so far prevented the Secretary from achieving his goals for the education foundation, Mr. Bell insisted nonetheless that his moderate Republican viewpoint--which favors retaining a federal role in education, albeit one of "support rather than direction"--has been translated into some "modest but significant changes" in the federal education office.
"I think we have done some significant things, but not nearly what we aspired to do a year ago," Mr. Bell said. "We've tried to move [the department] in a direction where we recognize that state and local responsibility is the supreme authority for education and that we ought to stop telling school boards and states [how to do things] and overruling state legislatures about who's in charge of the schools."
His greatest accomplishment as Secretary, Mr. Bell said, is the federal education block-grants program that will begin in the schools next month.
"We have the block grant in place, and we also have the vocational-education block grant that has been introduced [in the Senate], as well as another one in the works for education of the handicapped," he said.
If accepted by Congress, the proposed block grants--and the reduced number of regulations that accompany them--will represent a partial realignment of the federal role even if the department remains in place, he said.
Positions of Importance
Another action termed significant by the Secretary was the appointment by the White House personnel office of conservatives to positions of importance in the department. Those in high-ranking posts include Daniel Oliver, the general counsel; Charles L. Heatherly, the deputy undersecretary for management; and Donald J. Senese, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.
"This department is a lively place right now because of that," Mr. Bell said. "A lot of well-established concepts around here have been changed. ... We think some people who are inside can get some benefit from some fresh views and from some almost 180-degree opposite views.''
Mr. Bell counted himself as one of those who have "benefited" from the presence of what he called the "ultraconservative" point of view. "You learn to have a little respect for someone who's studied in a fine way and in a highly intellectual way. And they believe that government has gone too far and they're very, very conservative in their philosophy," he said.
Due in part to the presence of political conservatives in the department and to the Conservative Digest article, the department is in the first stages of implementing a revision of its grants-making process, another action that is expected to result in significant changes even if the department is not dismantled.
"I've felt for a long, long time," Mr. Bell said, "that too much of the discretionary funding of this department goes to organizations that someplace in their name have the word 'association,' and not enough of it goes to the school systems and to the state agencies. I think it's because of all these organizations that swarm around this town."
As an example, the Secretary cited the Women's Educational Equity Act program, which he said should "give the schools and colleges some resources as long as we're making grants."
"Why continue giving virtually all of [the funds] to associations? Maybe we need some pilot programs in academe that are helpful," Mr. Bell said.
A second step is the appointment of new "field readers"--part-time consultants who review and rate the quality of proposals for federal grants, based on the funding criteria.
A pilot program that used new proposal readers was criticized by education groups last spring as an attempt to influence the grants-making process through the appointment of Republican supporters of the President, rather than educators, as field readers.
Mr. Bell defended the program as an effort to balance the list of reviewers used by the Carter Administration with "some new blood."
He added, laughing, "We don't think all Democrats ought to be reading our proposals."