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Bennett Emphasizes Benefits of Choice,Rigor, and Character

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Washington--Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week offered a broad and emphatic defense of tuition tax credits and compensatory-education vouchers, saying that increased parental choice would be ''one of the best catalysts" for improving public schools.

"We believe that competition for those public schools that have been holding a captive audience will be one of the best catalysts to make some of them improve their performance," Mr. Bennett said in a speech at the National Press Club outlining his agenda for the Education Department.

"The problem today is not only that some schools fail our parents' expectations, but also that those schools cannot be held accountable by those they are supposed to serve. Accountability could be improved if parents had a greater ability to choose another school--a better school," he said.

'Three C's'

Choice for parents was one of the "three C's" Mr. Bennett said are needed to supplement the traditional "three R's." The other two are: "content" in the curriculum--he stressed the need for a rigorous, basic core of knowledge--and "character"--students, he said, must be taught by example the meaning of right and wrong.

On curricula, the Secretary called for stability and an emphasis on the basics. "Though educators are distressed when some students don't commit to a task over time, it could be that students simply follow the example many educators have set," he said. "Where is the stick-to-it-iveness, not of students but of educators?"

According to Mr. Bennett, all students should have basic knowledge in these areas: history, literature, geography, science, mathematics, art, and music.

And "whatever the pedagogy," he added, these classes "must not lose the substance."

Stresses Character Education

While "most of us believe that content is central to every person's education, what is often not observed is that we also agree on the centrality of my second 'C,' that is, the centrality of character to education," Mr. Bennett noted.

Among the instruments for promoting "moral development," he argued, would be legalized school prayer. "I do not believe the federal government should decide, a priori, either that school prayer must or must not be used as an auxiliary to character."

During his address, and afterward when he fielded several questions on the same subject, the new Secretary stressed the need for schools and their officials to promote discipline and character by example.

"We must--there is no other way--have principals and teachers who know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, and who make an effort to live the difference in front of pupils," he said. "In this business of character, there has never been anything as important as the quiet power of moral example."

"Teachers and principals must be willing to articulate ideals and convictions to students," Mr. Bennett said.

He called for "dialogue and discussion" in local communities to decide the values students ought to be taught. Some conservative groups are challenging many aspects of public-school curricula on the grounds that they usurp the parental role in teaching values.

Mr. Bennett asserted that parents--as "the indispensable teachers"--ought to be able to decide whether their children's schools offer the proper content and have the right character.

'Choice' Initiatives

He also argued that the Administration's initiatives to increase parental choice would not only promote better schools across the board, but would also help equalize educational opportunities across economic class lines and could benefit "at-risk" students, who, some critics contend, have been bypassed by the reform movement.

"Unfortunately, the majority of Americans do not have freedom to make a choice. Some do. The affluent have a voucher. It is known as the ability to buy the school of their choice by buying their neighborhood of their choice," Mr. Bennett said.

"The freedom to have some modicum of choice must not be bound by economic lines. All parents must have the ability to hold the system acountable so that they can fulfill their reponsibility for their children's education. That is what our proposals are about."

Legislative Proposals

The Administration's tax-credit proposal, which the Senate defeated in the 98th Congress and which will soon be reintroduced, would grant up to $300 per year in tax credits to parents whose children attend nonpublic schools. Families with annual incomes of more than $60,000 would be ineligible for the subsidy, which the department estimates would cost $359 million in fiscal 1986.

The Chapter 1 voucher plan would allow states to distribute com-pensatory-education funds to families in the form of vouchers, which could then be used at either public or nonpublic schools.

Mr. Bennett added, "We are also reviewing other aspects of our federal programs to see if they might be better served by vouchers." After the speech, Gary L. Bauer, the deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, said in an interview that many options are under discussion. He did not suggest any specific programs that might soon be "voucherized."

Mr. Bennett added, "We are also reviewing other aspects of our federal programs to see if they might be better served by vouchers."

Bennett Raps Department

Earlier last week, Mr. Bennett gave his initial impressions of the department he heads and indicated he would make more changes.

Speaking at the legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education, Mr. Bennett, without citing specifics, criticized waste and ineffiency in department programs and in the National Institute of Education and said he would soon begin to study the efficiency of those programs.

He also said there was no "loose change," and that to create new programs, money would have to be shifted from one account to another.

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