Scholar, Bell-Commission Member Laud Reactions to Report
Washington--Even though commissions and critics have been recommending radical reforms in the American educational system since the early 1950's, "little in the way of restoration of learning has been accomplished," said one of the nation's foremost conservative scholars last week, in a response to the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.
Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind and more than 20 other books, discussed the commission's recent study at a seminar at the U.S. Capitol last week. Mr. Kirk's remarks were followed by an analysis of the commission's report by Annette Kirk, his wife, who was one of the commission's 18 members.
Mr. Kirk said he had assumed that the commission's report, like those of previous reform panels, would contain "more nonsense than sense.'' But the final report, he said, has attained far more attention than he ever thought possible. Even the National Education Association "will not find it possible to promote mediocrity over excellence now," he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kirk said the commission had "avoided" discussing some of the more "fundamental" reforms needed in education, including tuition tax credits, vouchers, and school prayer. President Rea-gan, he said, was "more bold" in interpreting the report as an affirmation of the Administration's education policies.
The commission was also remiss, he said, in not addressing "the ethical character of a good education. I see the decline of public and private morality as more alarming than the technological rivalry with other nations," he said.
Mr. Kirk, a long-time critic of the nation's educational system and a supporter of the rights of private schools to be free from state regulation, spoke at the invitation of the Heritage Foundation, the public-policy research organization located here.
He applauded the commission for recognizing the decline in American education, but he suggested his own "principle causes of this decline." Among them, he listed: the "smug complacency of the general public," educators' concern with credentials rather than excellence, the "incompetence" of teachers' colleges, the role of the courts in politicizing education, the growing power of teachers' unions, and drugs and the lack of discipline in the schools.
"Now and then, I marvel that our schools still strive to teach anything to anybody with the handicaps imposed on them," Mr. Kirk said.
Regarding teachers' unions, Mr. Kirk added his opinion that both major unions would not reject the suggestions in the commission's re-port. "The American Federation of Teachers is genuinely interested in educational improvement, but the National Education Association is bent upon money and power," he said.
Mrs. Kirk described her work on the commission as one of "consensus building."
"We had people of diverse views [on the commission]," she said. "Setting aside our own ideological views, we came together as people interested in education."
She said education groups, such as officials of teachers' colleges or unions, that might have opposed the report if it had been written five years ago, might be willing to accept reforms now. "All of these people see the writing on the wall. They know what is happening," she said.
The Kirks expressed different opinions about whether tuition tax credits, which they support, might be passed by the Congress or the legislatures in the current climate for reform. Mr. Kirk said enactment of the Reagan Administration's bill "is conceivable in the present climate of public opinion." But Mrs. Kirk said passage was unlikely at either the state or federal level.
She added, however, that she hoped "tuition tax credits and vouchers could be viewed not as a threat but as another means of achieving excellence in society."