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Education Ranked As U.S. Priority; Initiatives Sought

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Washington--The condition of the nation's educational system figured prominently on the nation's political agenda last week, as President Reagan introduced a four-part plan to "revitalize American education by setting a standard of excellence" during his State of the Union Message to the Congress.

The Administration's proposal, broadcast on national television, was followed by a "response" from Democratic party leaders that also placed heavy emphasis on the need for "a new dedication to excellence in American education."

Both the Republican and the Democratic plans underscored the role of education in bolstering the nation's economic recovery, and both parties included a commitment to improving the teaching of mathematics and science in the schools.

Unlike his 1982 address, the President's message last week placed education third--behind only employment and trade--on the list of areas necessary to a "strong, sustained recovery."

Last year, Mr. Reagan mentioned education only in the context of abolishing the Education Department, a project his Administration has temporarily abandoned, according to sources.

This year, the President also made only a one-sentence mention of New Federalism, the program to sort out state and federal responsibilities that dominated his 1982 address. The Administration, he said, would "shortly submit a comprehensive federalism proposal" to the Congress.

Administration sources said, however, that the federalism plan--which was scheduled to be included in the President's new budget proposal this week--would be smaller and less sweeping than the proposal that was included in last year's budget.

And this year, the President is seeking much smaller budget reductions for education programs. Mr. Reagan last year sought a one-third budget cut for the $15-billion Education Department. Because that plan was summarily rejected by the Congress, the Administration is likely to seek only $2 billion in cuts this year, sources said.

The President's education proposal for the fiscal year 1984, which begins Oct. 1, will ask for a $50-million block-grants package to provide fellowships for potential mathematics and science teachers, and tax-deferred "educational savings accounts" to encourage families to save for college costs. Mr. Reagan also called for tax credits for parents who pay private-school tuition and a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in public schools--two proposals that failed in the Congress last year.

Although he did not mention it in his speech last week, the President has also approved a plan to permit states and school systems to use their federal Chapter 1 funds--which provide for the education of disadvantaged children--to support a "voucher" system for low-income families, according to sources. Under the voluntary plan, families could be given a voucher equal to the federal per-pupil Chapter 1 allotment, currently between $400 and $500, to spend at private schools.

The Democrats responded to Mr. Reagan's address with a five-point "commitment" plan for revitalizing the economy. In the plan, "a skilled and educated work force" ranked second behind "research and development of technologies."

Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, a party spokesman, criticized the Administration for cutting the federal budget for education programs. The Democrats, he said, were committed to "better teacher training, a stronger emphasis on math and science, rigorous testing, and a real commitment to high standards and discipline."

The Democrats' broadcast did not mention specific legislative proposals, but a new Democratic-sponsored bill to upgrade science and mathematics teaching was the subject of two days of hearings in the House last week. (See story on this page.)

Reaction to the Reagan Administration's proposals from education-committee members in the Congress was mixed.

Republican Robert T. Stafford of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education, the Arts, and the Humanities, pledged to "cooperate to the utmost in upgrading science and math instruction, which is long overdue."

"I have an open mind about the proposal for an education savings account," the Senator added. "But tuition tax credits would only reduce funds for important public-education programs and add to the deficit."

Representative Paul Simon, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, said the savings-account proposal "has to be considered in the context of the Administration's budget recommendations for higher education. That is important," he said, "because these accounts would benefit mostly upper-income people and their children."

Spokesmen for education groups expressed skepticism about the voucher proposal. "Vouchers are likely to be found unconstitutional," because they provide "public money directly to religious schools" contended a spokesman for the National School Boards Association, who asked not to be identified.

Richard E. Duffy, representative for federal assistance of the U.S. Catholic Conference, said Catholic educators are "in favor of vouchers as an experiment or a concept."

"But 'voucherizing' [Chapter 1] is another question," he said. "[Chapter 1] has been a tested and tried program that has proven effective over the past 15 years."

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