President's Disavowal of E.D. Abolition Moves Bennett Closer to Confirmation
Washington--The Senate is expected this week to confirm William J. Bennett as the third secretary of education, following the recommendation of its Labor and Human Resources Committee.
That recommendation was expected to come late last week or early this week, committe aides said.
In a move that allayed the concerns of several Senators--notably Lowell P. Weicker, Republican of Connecticut--and accelerated the committee's consideration of Mr. Bennett, President Reagan said he would not propose the abolition of the Education Department "at this time" because of a lack of support in the Congress.
Mr. Reagan, in a Jan. 29 letter to Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and chairman of the committee, which has jurisdiction over the Education Department, also said, "I still feel ... that federal edu-cation programs could be administered effectively without a Cabinet-level agency." (See text of letter on this page.)
Mr. Reagan sent the letter the day after Mr. Bennett's confirmation hearing in response to questions by Senator Weicker and others suggesting they were not convinced by Mr. Bennett's repeated assurances that ''I have no assignment or intention to abolish" the five-year-old agency.
Mr. Bennett--who was nominated by President Reagan for the post Jan. 10 and ordered to study the federal role in education and whether to reorganize the department--told members of the Labor and Human Resources Committee that he intended to complete the review within about six months, after soliciting advice from current department staff, educators serving "in the field," experts in education, and members of Congress.
Senators also asked Mr. Bennett, the 41-year-old chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, about his record on civil-rights issues, proposed deep cuts by the Administration in postsecondary-student aid, Education Department programs for "special populations," tuition tax credits, and magnet schools.
Mr. Bennett, introduced by Senator Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, and Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York, was greeted favorably by members of the committee.
But several expressed disappointment at his failure to fully answer pointed questions about specific education programs and about the department itself.
After an exchange in which Mr. Bennett said he had not formed his opinion about whether he "liked" the Education Department or whether it should exist, Senator Thomas F. Eagleton, Democrat of Missouri, asked, "Don't you think it's relevant for us to know before we confirm you?"
Mr. Bennett answered a number of specific inquiries in general terms, and he strongly defended his record in civil-rights, which was questioned by Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, and Representative Cardiss Collins, Democrat of Illinois, who testified as a witness at the hearing to express her concerns.
Aid Limit 'Appropriate'
In higher education, for example, he said that a limit on federal student aid is "appropriate," although he added that the Administration proposals would "be difficult for many people."
But he declined to comment on the specifics, saying, "I need to see the numbers; I need to see the tables" on how the changes would affect different income groups.
The Administration proposals--which were deplored by both Republicans and Democrats on the panel--would limit federal aid to $4,000 per student and to families with incomes below $32,500.
On Private Education
In precollegiate education, Mr. Bennett reiterated his support for tuition tax credits for parents of private-school students and education vouchers at the state level, saying that the distinction between public and private education "is not so important" since it is students who are the paramount consideration.
He declined to comment on the impact that tax credits or vouchers would have on public schools, saying that he had not "looked that closely" at specific proposals.
But he added, "None of us can afford to ignore public education, even if we decide ... to send our son or daughter to private school."
He also said he supports magnet schools "as a way of breaking down too rigid a notion of separation without the problems we've seen in compulsory assignment by race"--which he has said he opposes.
Senator Simon and Representative Collins were the only hearing participants to question Mr. Ben6nett closely on his record on civil-rights issues, particularly his hiring record during his three-year tenure as chairman of the neh
Hiring Record Questioned
The humanities endowment was one of four federal agencies that refused last year to submit an affirmative-action hiring plan to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission; that refusal was investigated by the House panel chaired by Representative Collins.
Senator Hatch, however, strongly defended Mr. Bennett's hiring and civil-rights records.
Third Education Secretary
Once confirmed, Mr. Bennett would be the third Cabinet-level secretary of education, succeeding Shirley M. Hufstedler, who was picked by Jimmy Carter in 1979, and Terrel H. Bell, who was President Reagan's choice to head--and dismantle--the department.
As of last Thursday, committee members were reviewing Mr. Bennett's responses to written questions submitted by the Senators after the hearing.