Secretary Bell 'Pleased' With G.O.P. Plank on Schools
The platform adopted by the Republican Party in Dallas late last month gave unusual emphasis to education. The section on education is almost twice as long as the education plank adopted in the 1980 platform, and it is exceeded in length only by the planks on national defense and individual rights.
Last week, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell spoke with Assistant Editor Tom Mirga about his views on the education plank, the means by which the party hopes to translate the plank's proposals into reality, and his own plans for the future.
QWho actually was responsible for the drafting of the Republican platform's education plank and what was your involvement in its development?
AI don't know specific individuals that were involved in the platform. I know that a number of members of Congress who are deeply interested in education were quite heavily involved. People like [Representatives] Trent Lott [of Mississippi] and Steve Bartlett [of Texas]. My only involvement was that I responded to questions and gave advice to those who asked for it.
QThe media paid a great deal of attention to moderate Republicans who claimed that the platform--and in particular the education plank--does not reflect the views of mainstream Republicans. Do you think there is anything to that claim?
AI don't know. I don't see much in the education part of the platform that ought to be upsetting. Do you have anything in particular in mind?
QPeople like Senators Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut and Robert T. Stafford of Vermont, for example, were speaking out in opposition to school prayer and tax credits.
AThere will always be debate on that. And we know that those issues were in the platform in 1980, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that they are in the platform this time. Also, I don't know what you mean by a "mainstream Republican." I think individuals like Trent Lott and Steve Bartlett would claim that they're as much mainstream as would be the Senators that you mentioned.
QDoes the education plank contain all of the elements that you would have liked to see go in it, and are there any things in it that you would have preferred left out?
AI've been quite satisfied with the education provisions in the platform. I think it makes a good statement about education and its importance. A lot of space in the total Republican platform is devoted to education. Generally, I'm quite pleased.
QTax credits, block grants, vocal prayer, and the "voucherization" of Chapter 1 reappear in the platform. One or both of the houses of the Congress have either rejected those initiatives or failed to move on them. Do you have any reason to believe that they will fare better the next time around?
AI think that's going to depend upon the outcome of the election, who wins, how strong the mandate will be, and what the makeup of the House and Senate will be. I suspect that if we have the same Congress as we have now we'll probably have about the same situation again.
QWhat kinds of activities will your department undertake to press these issues in the next Congress? And is the Administration willing to make alterations to the bills that you sent up to the Hill to make them more palatable to the Congress?
AThat's hard to answer this early. A question like that would be easier to answer in December or January. Right now, we're busy getting ready to implement the new math-science bill that's been passed. That's a big, big job. And we'll soon be in the final month of this fiscal year. So we have so many of those kinds of items on us that we really haven't had much time to give to that question.
QThe reason I asked that question is because there are some critics of the Administration within the Republican Party who allege that the Education Department hasn't been doing enough to push tax credits or Chapter 1 vouchers. They say more should have been done to prod the Congress to act on these issues.
AWell, I don't know how you prod Congress into action, to use that term. All you can do is testify, talk to them on the telephone, respond to correspondence, and give public addresses so you can persuade your point of view. I would argue that the department did all of those things. Whether we were eloquent enough is something else.
QThe platform calls for the continuation of the block process begun in 1981. Should we expect new initiatives?
AI just don't want to get into any speculation at all about what we might do in another term if we win the election. Right now we have to win the election.
QNo mention was made in the platform of the upcoming reauthorization of student financial-aid programs. Is the Administration planning to stick with its "self-help" posture?
AI don't know what we'll do again in 1985 ... because I don't know what the President will want to do if he is re-elected.
QThe 1980 education plank contained very strong "right-to-work" language. There is no similar language in this year's version and you were quoted recently by the Associated Press as calling for "a better working relationship" with the National Education Association. Is the party attempting to mend fences with the nea?
AI don't think we're seeing much prospect of a great amount of harmony with the nea I think our orientation is so different in many ways. We press hard for the master-teacher, career-ladder system for compensating teachers, also for block grants that give a lot of autonomy and authority to the state and local entities. We see the nea coming down opposite to that.
[The Associated Press reporter] was sitting in an audience down there [in Dallas during the Republican National Convention] during an education caucus, and one person asked me a question. He was a teacher, a Republican and member of the nea, and asked me what we could do to establish a better relationship. I indicated I'd like to see us work more effectively with everybody, including the nea But I also said--and this wasn't in the story--that I didn't see much hope for it. I can remember when the nea was less partisan than they are now. We think they have an unfortunate tilt toward the other party.
QIt also appears that anti-busing language in the platform was toned down quite a bit from 1980. For example, the word "busing" doesn't even appear in this year's version. What does that change represent?
AWell, I don't think it's the issue that it was back in 1980. I don't see federal courts mandating as much busing as they did then. I see magnet schools and other approaches seeming to show some promise. The emphasis has been in that direction.
I surely don't think it shows that we're any more enthused about busing than we were. I hear more from minority parents about busing than I do from anyone else. They don't want their children hauled clear across town to a school in some far, distant locale.
QPerhaps the most striking difference between the 1980 and the 1984 versions of the education plank is the absence in the 1984 version of a call for the abolition of the Education Department. Why was this left out?
AThose that were writing the platform didn't see fit to put that in this time. They didn't recognize that it was in the 1980 platform. I note that they listed the Energy Department but not the Education Department. I guess the writers [of the platform] would have to speak for themselves on that, but my feeling has been that the Education Department has played a role more supportive of local and state control. As long as we can behave in such a way that we're advocates of those that have responsibility for education and not their adversaries, to the extent that we do that, we lower the urgency for changing the structure of this department.
And what's more, we sent a proposal up to the Hill to create a foundation-type structure, and the Congress, including many conservatives, just wouldn't support it.
QDo you still support a foundation-type agency?
AIf we need to move from an entity such as we have. But down through the months, especially the last few months--and this is probably bragging on my part--I think we've done a pretty good job of defusing that entire issue.
There are advantages to having a Cabinet-level Secretary of Education, and there are disadvantages to having it, depending upon the orientation of who is the Secretary of Education and how you feel about who's in charge of education and what the role of the department ought to be in supporting, enhancing, and strengthening the capacities of state and local entities to meet education's needs.
We've done that fairly effectively, even though there's always room for improvement. I think that's pretty well defused the issue. I can mention a number of very fine, conservative Congressmen who are opposed to abolishing the Education Department.
It just is not an issue now. Those of you who write keep raising the question. I didn't hear the issue raised once in Dallas [during the convention], and I was there from Sunday through adjournment. During the time I was there, I met with a number of people, I was on a caucus team, I went around and met with state delegations, and I think I had one question--I want to modify what I just said--about that matter out of the many, many questions that were raised.
QThe 1984 education plank also urges the "aggressive enforcement" of the Hatch Amendment [a 1976 federal law that prohibits requiring any student to reveal personal or family information as any part of any federally financed program, test, treatment, or psychological examination unless the school first obtains written consent from the student's parents]. Although your department is going ahead with its plan to issue regulations under the law, the House-passed version of the fiscal 1985 Education Department appropriations bill contains language directing you not to. If the full Congress passes legislation containing such language, will we have a major fight?
AWe will comply with the law. If Congress passes a law that amends, modifies, or restrains the Hatch Amendment, we will comply with that. But we will be raising our voices in favor of the philosophy of that law. We think it's a strong parental-rights provision that's necessary and desirable.
QThe President just announced his decision to name a teacher as the first citizen passenger on the space shuttle, stating that the move was intended to remind the public "of the crucial role teachers and education play in the life of our nation." Do you feel that the public is happy with the role that the President is playing vis-a-vis education?
AOh, I think that the public generally is thrilled with the attention that the President is giving education. I think he gave an outstanding address yesterday on education, and that was, if our count is accurate, the 44th time he's given an address on education. No President in modern times has devoted as much time and attention to education as has President Reagan.
I'd emphasize that we have a budget before Congress for fiscal 1985 that has a 52-percent increase for the block grant, a 50-percent increase in the college work-study program, some more modest but still significant increases in Chapter 1 and education for the handicapped. We'll provide in that budget well over $7 billion in loan capital. So, I think that the leadership the President has provided goes far beyond just what many imply is an expression of willingness to let the states and locals do it. We're making very significant contributions by reducing the tax rate like we have--that provides an opportunity for those who want to do it to provide more money for schools, and they've been doing it.
QLess than two years ago, several conservative supporters of the President repeatedly called for your dismissal, and there was much speculation as to whether you would remain in office. Since then, you have become one of the most visible members of the Cabinet and strongly identified, perhaps as no one else, with the growing education-reform movement. If the President wins re-election in November, will you be around for another four years?
AI don't know. I just haven't had time. I've got to make that decision before very long. But I haven't had time to devote to that very much. I guess all of us need to wait and see if the President gets re-elected and then decide what we'll do with respect to our personal plans.
QDo you feel that you've accomplished all that you set out to accomplish?
AWell, quite a large portion of what I wanted to get done. I feel reasonably satisfied. I can think back on it and wish that some things had gone differently than they have. But on balance I'm fairly satisfied with what will soon be four years.