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Education Seen Emerging as 1984 Presidential Campaign Issue

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Washington--Education issues are shaping up as one of the most divisive topics of the 1984 Presidential election, as Republicans and Democrats take opposing positions on how to remedy the widespread school "mediocrity" cited by the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.


Democrats, as they did in the 1980 election, have responded to the report with calls for more federal aid to education. Candidates Walter Mondale, the former vice president, and Senator Gary Hart have proposed education-aid packages of $11 billion and $2 billion, respectively. Both candidates are said to be seeking the favor of the national teachers' unions, especially the National Education Association (nea), which figured prominently in the 1980 Democratic convention and led public-sector unions in political spending last year. The union has estimated that implementing the commission's recommendations would require a $14-billion additional investment by the federal government.

The Republican Party, however, is regarded as moving to broaden its base in 1984, maintaining its support for issues such as school prayer and tuition tax credits, but emphasizing "quality" in the schools--an issue designed to appeal to traditional concerns of parents about their children's futures.

The Administration's principal strategy, according to press reports and interviews with observers, involves dividing those who call for more federal involvement in education--the nea in particular--from parents, especially Catholics, Hispanics, and blue-collar workers, who are perceived as being concerned about "family" issues.

"You're not going to get any change unless you get people stirred up whose kids are in school," said one Republican Senate aide.

President Reagan's latest move involves the issue of merit pay for teachers, a notion nea has strongly opposed. During an address at Seton Hall University in May, Mr. Reagan said that "teachers should be paid and promoted on the basis of their merit and competence."

"Rewarding excellence," he added, is "opposed by some of the heaviest hitters in the national education lobby."

The President also wrote to the nea president, Willard H. McGuire, expressing "surprise" that the nea had accused Mr. Reagan of mounting a "'disgraceful assault on the teaching profession."'

"Until nea supports badly needed reforms in salary, promotion, and tenure policies, the improvements we so desperately need will only be delayed," the letter said.

The May 26 letter also said Mr. Reagan was "heartened" by the master-teacher proposal developed by the Governor of Tennessee and "disappointed" at the nea's "vigorous opposition" to the plan, which a state Senate committee rejected.

The nea's allegation was "blatant hyperbole of the first rank," said Gary L. Jones, undersecretary of education.

The union official responded by accusing Mr. Reagan of "ignor[ing] many of the commission's findings and add[ing] concepts the Commission never addressed." He also asked to meet with the President.

"They're going to try to paint the nea into a corner," said one observer. "They want it to appear that the President is for parents, for children, for education, and the nea is just a union, for itself."

An nea staff member responded, "Making education a national issue--that's what the nea has always wanted." The staff member asked not to be identified.

Since the excellence commission's report was issued in late April, President Reagan has repeatedly stated his concern for improving the schools, even as he has reasserted support for tax credits, vouchers, and school prayer. Mr. Reagan has also sought to downplay his initial stance against federal funding of education, asserting to a group of high-school valedictorians recently that "there haven't been cutbacks in funding for public education." (See Education Week, June 1, 1983.)

But his public statements in support of improving education actually began in his January State of the Union Message, when he called on "parents, teachers, grassroots groups, organized labor, and the business community" to "revitalize American education by setting a standard of excellence."

And the Administration, which had asserted in a policy paper in August 1981 that "the federal government does not have responsibility for education," has moderated that stance considerably. In the fiscal 1983 budget proposed by the budget office, education programs were slated to be cut from about $14 billion to $8.3 billion. For 1984, the Administration raised the recommended figure to $13.2 billion.

The federal government, Mr. Reagan said in the Seton Hall speech, can "help set the national agenda for excellence in education."

As part of Mr. Reagan's new posture regarding education, he will appear at "some" of the 20 regional meetings scheduled around the country in the next few months, at which the excellence commission's report will be discussed, according to sources.

"The political climate is such that the White House cannot be anti-education," said August W. Steinhilber, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association. "They watched their science-education bill be increased to $425 million instead of $50 million; they watched the Senate vote an additional $1 billion for education. At the same time, they're watching the Democratic party play marvelously off education." Mr. Steinhilber also observed that the strategy "is designed to appeal to school-board members. There's a definite attempt to have a pro-public-education posture."

Edward Anthony, director of the office for educational assistance of the U.S. Catholic Conference, said the strategy was likely also to "make some points with Catholic educators."

Catholic parents and educators have favored tuition tax credits and restoring prayer in public schools, but they also support federal aid to education, especially for the Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged children, Mr. Anthony said.

The Administration's efforts to shift the focus of the debate over school quality from the federal government to local schools is likely to be assisted by investigative hearings planned for later this year by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Congressional education committees generally oversee the implementation of federal programs in the schools; they seldom exercise their right to investigate local schools' practices.

The Senate committee, however, intends to examine some common school practices. Included among the topics, according to a committee aide, are: the impact of collective-bargaining agreements on school curriculum, the impact of states' legislative mandates, and the extent of public participation in education.

The investigation, according to the staff member, is likely to "point up that the problem is not federal money, the problems are really state and local ones."

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