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Family 'Well-Being' To Be New Criterion In Federal Policies

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Washington--President Reagan, acting on a recommendation advanced by former Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Bauer, has ordered that all federal policies be assessed for their impact on family "well being."

The President's executive order, signed Sept. 3, requires the Education Department and all other federal agencies to weigh proposals against several criteria, including their potential to strengthen or erode family stability, marital commitment, and "the authority and rights of parents in the education, nurture, and supervision of their children."

The order also compels agencies to consider what message their proposals send the public about the status of the family and what they convey to young people about "the relationship between their behavior, their personal responsibility, and the norms of our society."

The directive, which applies to existing as well as proposed policies and regulations, also asks agency officials to question whether a specific action would help or hamper the family in performing its traditional functions and whether it could be performed "by a lower level of government or by the family itself."

Mr. Bauer, who left the Education Department last February to become the President's assistant for domestic policy, said the order was intended to be both a tool to advance Mr. Reagan's agenda on family issues and a means of offseting past policies that underplayed or undermined the family.

"Too much of the time there has been a tendency in the bureaucracy to respond to special-interest groups that have lawyers and lobbyists and to think only secondarily of the greatest interest group of all: the family," Mr. Bauer said in an interview last week. He cited the welfare programs instituted in the 1960's as examples of policies that "inadvertently undermined the stability of the poor families they were trying to help."

An interagency task force on the family chaired by Mr. Bauer first broached the idea of establishing a "family fairness" analysis in a 60-page report drafted last year to assist the White House domestic-policy council in formulating initiatives for the final months of the Reagan Administration. (See Education Week, Nov. 19, 1986.)

The report charged that courts and federal policymakers had eroded family authority, and that the "abrasive experiments of two liberal decades" had precipitated a decline in the stature of the family.

'Redundant' in Education

Although the Presidential order will apply to federal education policies, Mr. Bauer said it might be "redundant" in that area because Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's proposals have been in tune with Administration concerns.

"In the case of education, we have a Cabinet secretary who already understands the important role of family in the education of children,'' Mr. Bauer said. "Nobody needs to remind Secretary Bennett that we don't need to do anything that could inadvertently undermine family stability."

Bruce M. Carnes, deputy undersecretary of education, said the order would not alter the department's course in formulating new initiatives, but would prompt officials to be wary of any "unintended impact" in regulations.

Spur to Parent Involvement

Mr. Bauer pointed to a "tendency by school officials to think of parental involvement" in terms of "a chaperone for the school dance, when it is obviously much more than that."

He said the Administration hopes to use the executive order to promote programs that "increase the input of parents and the role of families in the educational process, particularly when dealing with disadvantaged" students.

Mr. Bauer also voiced confidence that, despite the cool response in the Congress and the education community to Mr. Bennett's proposals to use vouchers to expand parental choice in schooling, some form of choice eventually would be adopted.

Student-Aid Impact

Alluding to a provision in the order that asks agencies to weigh the impact of policies on family budgets, Mr. Bauer indicated that student-aid policies might be reassessed. But he said that "the way the debate may come out may not be obvious."

One question that could be raised, he said, is whether government policies have "inadvertently encouraged" an inflation of higher-education costs, affecting "the budgets of millions of families."

Mr. Carnes, however, said he did not see the order as a potential threat to student-aid policies, which benefit families unable to shoulder the full burden of high college costs. But it could, he said, cue officials to "make sure the programs do not make the problem worse."

Under the executive order, agencies must identify and offer a rationale for policies with a "significant potential negative impact" on family well-being, and must certify to the Office of Management and Budget that they have assessed both the negative and positive effects of proposals.

The White House office of policy development, which already screens initiatives for their consistency with Administration policy, would add the family criteria to its review process. When the office's assessment matches the agency's, Mr. Bauer said, "the issue is moot."

When conflicting evaluations exist, he added, "unresolved differences will have to be reconciled" before the proposal can advance.

The policy office will use the assessments to make recommendations to the domestic policy council, and must submit a final report to the President within six months.

Impetus from Bauer

Mr. Bauer cited the President's proposal to increase the tax exemption for dependents as one example of Mr. Reagan's interest in policies that promote family well-being. But he indicated that the impetus for the executive order had been his own interest in family issues.

The executive order reflects the conservative themes Mr. Bauer sounded during his five-year tenure at the Education Department, where he was an outspoken advocate of "traditional values." His speeches sparked controversy on issues ranging from government support for private schools to political and religious bias in textbooks. (See Education Week, Feb. 11, 1987.)

The timing of the order, he said, is "a function of the fact that I'm now here and I obviously have had an interest in keeping this thing on people's radar screens."

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