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Ex-Education Secretaries Lament Issue's Low Priority in Campaign

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NEW YORK--The four former secretaries of education convened here just nine days before this week's election for a panel discussion that was dominated by talk of politics, the federal role in education, and President Bush's America 2000 education-reform strategy.

The meeting was the secretaries' second under the sponsorship of the College Board, which was holding its annual forum. As she did last year in San Francisco, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a correspondent with the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, served as moderator. (See Education Week, Nov. 20, 1991.)

The discussion will again air on public-television stations, this time on Jan. 3.

Lauro F. Cavazos, who served under Mr. Bush from 1988 until early 1991, got the discussion rolling when he said that education "is not an issue that plays long in the mind or consciousness of the nation. ... It is a terrible commentary.''

"We're in trouble even more so because no one is focused on bringing about fundamental change in education,'' he said. "People running for the office of President or governor should call attention to changes that need to be made and that change needs to be made on a state and local level.''

A Campaign Issue?

Shirley M. Hufstedler, who served as the first secretary under former President Jimmy Carter, said education does not garner attention in a national campaign because children do not vote.

Terrel H. Bell, former President Reagan's first education secretary, said parents need to pay more attention to education, and that, if they did, the leaders would follow. But he also said political leaders should seek to influence public opinion.

"During a campaign, the pollsters tell [politicians what to say], and the pollsters aren't telling candidates that education is at the top of the priority list,'' he said. "It's a matter of whether you respond to public opinion or you try to shape it, and leadership is the latter.''

But William J. Bennett said: "I don't want [the President] obsessing about education. He's not the president of the school, he's the President of the United States.''

Because it is financed mostly by state and local dollars, education should be primarily a state and local issue, said Mr. Bennett, who was secretary under Mr. Reagan between 1985 and 1988. But he said the President should use his bully pulpit to herald education reform.

When it has arisen as an issue, Mr. Bennett said, there has been "a very fundamental divide on education on choice and other issues.''

The Bush Strategy

The former secretaries offered mixed reviews of the President's reform strategy, but none argued that it had been extremely effective.

"It's a recipe for a hope and a prayer,'' Ms. Hufstedler said. "It's not a lesson plan.''

Mr. Bell reiterated his opinion that improvements in the year 2000 come too late. However, he praised aspects of the President's plan, in particular the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private nonprofit corporation that has made grants to 11 design teams to create innovative schools.

Mr. Bennett offered general praise for the efforts of the current secretary, Lamar Alexander, to promote education reform, and blamed lawmakers for hampering Mr. Bush.

Congress said "no'' to the President's reforms, "and that is the exercise of power,'' he said.

Mr. Cavazos called national reform efforts "very disappointing,'' and appeared to say that he has changed his position on using public dollars for private school choice, a cornerstone of the Bush agenda.

Last year, he called such programs "a better chance,'' and said, "What we have now isn't working.'' But last week, he said: "I don't agree with the current push to move educational choice into the religious schools or the private schools. ... This is not a mechanism to improve public schools; it's a mechanism to wreck them.''

Ms. Hufstedler called Mr. Bush's choice plan "a cruel hoax.''

Only Mr. Bennett defended vouchers, saying it is only a matter of time before one state implements such a program, and others follow.

The Next President?

With an apparent eye on polls that gave the Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a lead over Mr. Bush, the secretaries weighed in with recommendations for the next four years.

Ms. Hufstedler said the next President "has the most superb opportunity in the world to say, 'Let's make a political commitment, a pact with the people ... to be sure that the first three steps of what we promised will happen by the year 2000 will happen in the next four years.' ''

Mr. Cavazos said the President should remember that the nation's "most precious resource'' is its schools.

Mr. Bell called for the establishment of national standards and the cultivation of leadership.

Mr. Bennett, always outspoken, said the President should venture outside his office, dismiss suggestions from advisers, and tell the education secretary to "say what you think.''

The secretaries also discussed early childhood education, teacher training, school finance, multiculturalism, parental responsibility, and standards. While they agreed on little else, all four said the nation has made progress in education but has a long way to go.

"There has been significant progress in some states,'' Mr. Bell said, "but our problems have been multiplying like rabbits.''

Mr. Bennett said factors outside the schools--such as the erosion of the family, low college admissions standards, and a culture that is shaped by movies and television--contribute to the nation's education woes.

Ms. Hufstedler called for more federal dollars for education and better teaching and learning conditions.

Mr. Cavazos said education's biggest problem is that teaching is "just seen as another job.''

"Most teachers, frankly, are cheerier than this panel, and it's a good thing for children that they are,'' said Mr. Bennett, adding that schools should model their teaching system on higher education. "I'm still waiting for the first chair in history or civics in a middle school or high school.''

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