Bell Recounts Tenure as Chief Of E.D. in Book

By Julie A. Miller — October 28, 1987 10 min read

In a forthcoming memoir of his Reagan Administration days, former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell portrays himself as an embattled champion of education interests, fighting the conservative ''true believers” and “White House ideologues” who sought to wipe out the federal presence in both education and civil-rights enforcement.

According to the memoir, The Thirteenth Man, Mr. Bell publicly defended the Administration’s proposals for severe budget cuts, slackened civil-rights enforcement, and abolition of the Education Department because it was his job to support the President, and because he felt he could protect his causes somewhat if he stayed within the Administration.

In private, Mr. Bell writes, he argued vigorously against many of its education initiatives, and endured the painful irony of sharp criticism from the Congress and the public for policies he considered odious.

He also says he endured slights stemming from his ignominious position as the least-favored cabinet member, the status that inspired the book’s title.

Moreover, he saw his proudest achievement--A Nation at Risk, the provocative e.d.-sponsored report that put education issues high on the national agenda--used to bolster Mr. Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign and then abandoned.

His realization then that he and his commission’s report had not won Mr. Reagan over is what finally made him resign, Mr. Bell says in the book and reiterated last week in an interview.

“You know, I felt that maybe I had really convinced him when we were out on the disisemination trail,” and his disappointment was profound, Mr. Bell said in the interview.

White House staff members first tried to prevent the formation of the commission that drafted the report, Mr. Bell writes. But when A Nation at Risk proved to be tremendously popular, Mr. Reagan took to the road in support of its recommendations and of the strengthening of education in general.

Once the election was over, however, Mr. Bell says he was informed that a one-budget respite from severe cuts was over and that he would be expected to try again to eliminate his department.

“I had heard the President speak persuasively and with too much conviction to think that I would see the last of his efforts once he had won his second term,” Mr. Bell writes. “But with a sour taste in my mouth I had to acknowledge that my friends had been right after all. The commitment lasted only as long as the election season. ...”

“We would have changed the course of history in American education,’' says the former Secretary, if the President had stayed with the issue through “the implementation phase of the school-reform movement.” And that, he adds, would have assured Mr. Reagan a place in history as the American leader who saw the vital importance of renewing the education system to adequately prepare citizens to live and work “effectively and competitively” in the 21st century.

In the interview, Mr. Bell said he did not write the book to settle scores, but merely succumbed to an urge to reminisce that hits most “refugees from Washington.” He also wanted, he said, a platform for his views on how American education can be improved: with a large change in attitude, more professionalism in teaching, higher standards, and a major financial investment.

“I really feel the message of the book is in the last chapter,” he said. “What’s the future? What’s going to happen to our country if 30 percent of the rising generation continues to drop out of school? I emphasize that the new President must lead a major Marshall-plan-type of effort to strengthen the effectiveness of education.”

Lifelong Commitment

Several sections of the book describe Mr. Bell’s decidedly unprivileged childhood, which he says probably made him especially sensitive to discrimination. He discusses how his student-aid-assisted education at Albion State Normal School made him a firm believer in grant and loan programs.

Mr. Bell also recounts an experiment with merit pay for teachers that he launched as a school administrator, only to be frustrated by the Utah Education Association and the state legislature.

But the bulk of the 184-page volume, to be published in March by the Free Press at $20, is devoted to Mr. Bell’s adventures among the Administration’s “movement conservatives.”

Although Mr. Bell writes repeatedly of his high regard for Mr. Reagan and his managerial abilities, an obvious question emerges: Why did the President appoint a career educator so opposed to his views, the only non-millionaire in the Cabinet?

“I don’t know why,” Mr. Bell said in the interview, “although I have always been supportive of some of his programs, such as tuition tax credits” for private-school parents.

“I guess they corrected the mistake when I left and they went to Bill Bennett,” he said.

And why did he take the job? He hoped to persuade his new colleagues that education was important and a proper federal concern.

Mr. Bell says he was “even arrogant enough” to think he could teach the President to use “his considerable persuasive powers” to fight for schools and colleges. “I felt all I needed was a chance to get on the inside, where I could preach the gospel of education to the movers and shakers of the new Administration.”

The ‘Movement Conservatives’

It was not that simple, he says.

From the day he arrived in Washington, Mr. Bell writes, he was scorned by the Administration’s “movement conservatives,” who planted “spies” in his department, leaked embarrassing information to the press, and tried to undermine his authority.

According to Mr. Bell, they were led at the White House level by Attorney General Edwin Meese 3rd, who was then counselor to the President.

That in-group was “almost like a secret society,” he writes. “They looked after each other,” sharing “horror stories about the rest of us,” and immediately labeling the new Secretary of Education as “philosophically unfit for a high-level position.”

The “true” conservatives, he says, separated themselves from others who sought to practice the political art of compromise.

“These movement people proclaimed their ideological identity on cuff links and neckties,” he says. “Their logo was the profile of Adam Smith, the author of the classic economic work, The Wealth of Nations.”

This group first irked Mr. Bell by blocking his initial attempts to appoint key executives. Among the rejected candidates was Chester E. Finn, Jr., who is now the department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. When he was tapped for the planning, budget, and evaluation post, Mr. Bell says, Mr. Finn was working for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and that disqualified him.

First Conflicts

To make any progress, Mr. Bell says, he had to fill some positions with “movement people.” One of them was Edward Curran, who served as chief of the National Institute of Education until, without informing the Secretary first, he sent a letter to the White House recommending the elimination of n.i.e. Mr. Curran was fired after Mr. Bell said he would resign otherwise.

The high-profile controversy at n.i.e.--which did not end until Mr. Bell forced several more resignations--was followed closely, he says, by his first fight with Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman over Administration pro8posals for deep cuts in the education budget.

His plan to consolidate a host of programs into what became the Chapter 2 block grant was partially an attempt to minimize the number of programs actually eliminated, according to Mr. Bell.

“I knew I had to accept the Stockman cuts,” he says. “They were even more formidable than I expected. He intended to reduce the federal role in education to rubble, take away crucial aid to needy college students, and slash financial assistance that supplemented the education of the disadvantaged and the poor.”

Budget Battles

The Secretary says he found defending “these indefensible cuts” before the Congress a difficult and wearying task under the best of circumstances. But the job was made even less pleasant by an Administration policy that forced him to submit his testimony in advance to Mr. Stockman’s o.m.b.

Budget office aides often leaked Mr. Bell’s paperwork to the conservative press, a fact he verified, he writes, by marking it in code and watching marked photocopies turn up in reporters’ hands.

The budget office also forced changes in Mr. Bell’s testimony, he says, asking him to add paragraphs questioning the need for any student aid or aid to handicapped students.

While supporting Presidential policies he disagreed with “goes with serving in the Cabinet,” Mr. Bell writes, the content did not have to “sound shrill and dogmatic” and “the general mood of my presentations had to be acceptable to me.”

The Dissolution Plan

Mr. Bell also had to enlist Congressional support for another proposal he says he did not like: the abolition of the Education Department.

When he took the federal job, he was not entirely convinced that a Cabinet-level post was necessary, he writes, and asked for the task of devising the dissolution plan “to ensure the best possible role for education in the changeover.” President Reagan assured Mr. Bell at the outset that his idea for transferring many department functions to a downgraded education foundation would be acceptable.

But when the time came to implement the plan, Mr. Bell had misgivings, he says.. He had seen firsthand how a Cabinet officer’s prestige and access to White House officials could boost his ability to push his agenda, and did not want education “to give up its seat at that table.”

But he kept his promise, and joined Mr. Meese and Martin Anderson, director of the White House office of policy development, in negotiating the plan’s details.

Mr. Anderson wanted to phase out all federal education research and most financial-assistance programs, he writes. Mr. Meese wanted to scatter the e.d.'s responsibilities across the government bureaucracy to frustrate lobbyists’ attempts to influence decisionmaking.

But Mr. Bell says he won them over by arguing that these proposals would be ridiculed in the Congress. The final plan kept most of the department’s responsibilities in the new foundation, while transferring civil-rights enforcement to the Justice Department.

‘No One Owned It’

Despite tireless lobbying, only 19 senators would support the bill, Mr. Bell writes, and the public reaction was, if anything, harsher.

Many people opposed plans to dismantle the department, according to Mr. Bell, and the movement conservatives attacked him personally for trying to “keep the department under a new name.” Blaming Mr. Meese or Mr. Reagan for the plan “would not serve their ends.” Even the President decided against pushing for enactment of his own campaign promise.

“To my dismay and bitterness, the foundation bill was mine,” Mr. Bell writes. “No one else owned it. It was a bastard child and I was the father. The best thing to do was to establish as much distance from both as possible.”

He thought about resigning then, Mr. Bell says, but stayed to fight a losing battle against the Justice Department’s handling of Grove City v. Bell, the landmark civil-rights case that resulted in a dramatic narrowing of civil-rights protections.

Struggles Over Rights

It was only the biggest conflict in an ongoing war pitting Mr. Bell and Harry M. Singleton, then assistant education secretary for civil rights, against former Attorney General William French Smith and Justice’s civil-rights chief, William Bradford Reynolds, the Secretary said in the interview.

While Mr. Bell agreed with conservatives that the government had often been “heavyhanded” in its enforcement efforts, he says in the book that he was dismayed by the Justice officials’ narrow interpretations of the law.

Mr. Bell writes that he had a great deal to say about equal justice under the law, but despite supportive words from President Reagan, he never received encouragement from the Justice Department or elsewhere in the White House.

He, and especially Mr. Singleton, were upset by criticism from the civil-rights community, but could not disown the Administration’s policies, Mr. Bell added in the interview. The Matter of Slurs

Yet Mr. Bell insisted that racial slurs he heard from lower-level White House and o.m.b. staff--which received the lion’s share of attention in news reports about his book last week--were not representative of the entire Administration.

The aides referred to the late Martin Luther King Jr. as “Martin Lucifer Coon;" to Arabs as “sand niggers;" and to Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, the law barring sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, as “the lesbian’s bill of rights,” Mr. Bell writes.

But he says he thinks the remarks were designed expressly to annoy him, as were references to him as “Comrade Bell.”

“They were always baiting me,” Mr. Bell said in the interview. “I can laugh about it now.”