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Education Groups Score Bennett's Stand on Issues

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y Washington--A coalition of 18 national public- and private-education groups last week criticized Reagan Administration policy and rhetoric that it contends "undermines" efforts to improve public schools.

The coalition, the Education Leaders Consortium, adopted a statement condemning the Administration's Chapter 1 voucher proposal and criticizing Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's "constant flow of negative and inflammatory statements about public schools."

Although the voucher proposal is the only education policy cited specifically, the statement expresses a "frustration [that] has been building for quite some time," said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and chairman of the coalition.

Released to the press last week, the statement said the group is "concerned about actions and statements of the Secretary of Education at a time when public attention is focused on our schools and schools are working hard to improve. The Secretary continues to advocate issues and programs such as the recent voucher proposal that would actually undermine rather than support these improvements."

The educators' statement, which was to be mailed as a letter to Mr. Bennett, listed four other concerns, including finding ways to better serve disadvantaged pupils and latchkey children.

In addition, the statement criticized the Administration's unsuccessful effort to eliminate taxpayers' state and local tax deductions and emphasized the need to "nurture" public schools.

Consortium Criticized

A senior Education Department official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said that the public's concern and frustration over public schools are real and that the criticism of Mr. Bennett is a case of "shooting the messenger."

The education consortium comprises the executive directors of the major Washington-based education associations; it does not include the two teachers' unions.

Among its members are the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council of Great City Schools, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Independent Schools, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, and the National School Boards Association.

An appeal similar to the one endorsed by these groups was made to former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell in the spring of 1982 by representatives of the ccsso They accused him of neglecting to promote public education--and also of supporting tuition tax credits and vouchers--and of failing to counter proposed cuts in his department's budget. (See Education Week, April 7, 1982.)

Although the statement adopted last week represents the leaders' consensus, it does not completely reflect the range of members' concerns and viewpoints, interviews indicated.

Mr. Sava, for example, tempered the statement's criticism of Mr. Bennett with praise for his establishment of a study group on elementary education. Mr. Sava said he "thanked the Secretary for raising the importance of elementary education in the minds of citizens across the nation."

'Overdoing Criticism'

John C. Esty, president of the nais, said he concurred that Mr. Bennett is "overdoing the criticism of public education and understating" the gains that have been made in recent years. But he said he wassy at damning vouchers out of hand."

On the other hand, Gordon Cawelti of the ascd, the sole dissenter on the committee, argued that the consortium's criticism was "a little more moderate than I would have said." Mr. Cawelti wrote the first draft of the statement, which the group subsequently modified.

Conflicts Over Issues

For the past several months, Mr. Bennett and the consortium's member groups have taken opposing positions on numerous critical issues, such as budget-balancing legislation, a tax-reform plan, and a response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Aguilar v. Felton, which has caused upheaval in the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program.

In addition, in his campaign to promote parental choice and vouchers, Mr. Bennett has sharply criticized the public-education system. "In a pluralistic society such as our own--the most gloriously diverse the world has ever seen--that right and high duty [of parents to choose schools] is no longer compatible with government monopoly on schooling," he said earlier this year at a meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Last May, The Boston Globe, in a critical editorial, called Mr. Bennett a "secretary for private schools" because of his advocacy of tuition tax credits and vouchers.

The budget-balancing legislation--known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings amendment--and the tax-reform bill have been education groups' top legislative priorities this year.

They particularly fear deep spending reductions in education4and other domestic programs resulting from Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, which mandates a balanced federal budget by 1991. Mr. Bennett, arguing that its adverse effects would be minimal, endorsed the legislation in a Nov. 1 letter to House education leaders.

Mr. Bennett also disagreed with educators over whether eliminating the federal deduction for state and local taxes--as the Administration had proposed--would undermine funding for school reform. The House Ways and Means Committee version of the bill, to the relief of ed-ucation groups, would keep the deductibility.

Also, the Council of Great City Schools, which represents the 35 biggest urban districts, has joined a suit here charging that an Education Department policy formulated in the wake of the Felton ruling unconstitutionally aids religious schools.

The department in August ordered that the extra costs of serving religious-school students be taken "off the top" of districts' total Chapter 1 allocation, rather than from the share for private-school pupils.

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