Secretary Bell Calls On States To Carry Out Education Reforms
East Lansing, Mich.--At the first of a series of forums on the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell challenged state governors, legislators, and local school boards to develop "master plans" to bring about the improvements called for in the report, which documented the deteriorating condition of American education.
The Secretary, attending a May 13 conference on the report at Michigan State University, endorsed the critical assessment of public education and agreed with President Reagan that the best way to improve local schools is to reduce the federal government's role in education.
"Education is to the individual states as defense is to the federal government," he said. The perceived decline in public education began in the 1960's, Mr. Bell added, just as the federal government dramatically increased its school spending.
"We in Washington hand out 8 percent of the money for education," he said. "But we also hand out 50 percent of the rules, regulations, red tape, and paperwork."
End to Federal Interference
In his conference presentation and in an interview, the Secretary's interpretation of the commission's report rarely strayed from President Reagan's. But Mr. Bell insisted that the President's call for tuition tax credits, vouchers, and organized school prayer was misinterpreted. "Sure, we're for those programs," he said. "But people think that was the President's only response to the report. What he said was that we are for those ideas, along with longer days, tougher requirements, higher salaries, and an end to federal interference."
Secretary Bell said longer school days, longer school years, higher teacher salaries, and other improvements should come from higher state sales, income, and property taxes. The 25-percent federal income-tax cut initiated by President Reagan should make it easier for states to hike taxes, he added.
"The 50 states are in charge," the Secretary said. "... I believe, and the President believes, that the closer to the grassroots level we levy taxes, the more efficient school systems will be."
The federal government's role, Mr. Bell reiterated, should be one of leadership but not of intrusion into education. Washington should gather data, monitor meetings, sponsor research, and provide a healthy national economy to foster educational advancement. Such projects, he added, would work best without a Cabinet-level department of education. He predicted that the Education Department could be replaced by a national education foundation before the end of Mr. Reagan's current term.
In praising the report by the commission he had appointed, Secretary Bell paid particular attention to the call for higher salaries for teachers. He suggested a method that would involve paying "master teachers" salaries of about $40,000 per year, or whatever is competitive with the business world.
The Secretary called unions "the chief obstacle to this reform, which is indispensable to quality education."
"I hope we can persuade them to yield a bit on this," he said. "Both teachers and students will be better off."
His plan would be similar to college rankings of professor, associate professor, assistant professor, and instructor. Teachers, he said, would be promoted on the basis of merit, with only the top 15 percent reaching the rank of master teacher.
The nation's two major teachers' organizations, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, historically have resisted merit rankings. Last week, Keith Geiger, president of the Michigan Education Association, called Secretary Bell's proposal "one of the most dangerous ideas to come down the pike in quite a long time."
In addition, the Secretary suggested that every state establish a "master plan" setting standards, goals, and evaluation methods for each individual school board.
"More than most of us realize, school boards shape our future, either by their action, inaction, or ineptness," he said. "Show me a school board that is active, assertive, and committed to a master plan, and I will show you a community that is blessed with great schools or on their way to getting there."
Local school boards, he said, should hire strong superintendents, set down "hard-nosed policies that tell parents, students, and faculty what is expected of them," and select dynamic principals.