President Reagan Values Education Meese Proclaims

By George Neill — December 21, 1981 6 min read
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In his first public speech on education since joining the White House inner circle, Edwin Meese III, counselor to the President, assured some 4,000 California school administrators and board members that the Reagan Administration values education as “a national investment in the future of our country.”

“And we agree,” he said, “that it demands and deserves the best efforts of all of us working together.”

Quality Education

Speaking Dec. 11 at the annual joint conference of the Association of California School Administrators (acsa) and the California School Boards Association (csba), Mr. Meese sought to calm fears that the Reagan Administration does not believe in the importance of education.

“I want to reassure you of the commitment of the Administration to education--to quality education and excellence in education,” he emphasized.

Mr. Meese also said that:

He knows of no plan, as rumored in Washington, to cut federal education spending 50 percent by fiscal year 1983, or any other plans to make new “drastic cuts” in federal aid to schools.

The Administration is currently consulting with Congress before it announces the “most viable” way to replace the Department of Education.

In the Administration’s view, the most important principle of education is that it “does not begin with Washington officials, or even with state or local officials; it must begin in the home.”

Excellence in education demands competition--competition among students and competition among schools.

“We must work as hard for the talented as for the disadvantaged, deprived, and the handicapped, not at the expense of the latter, but to give a better opportunity for growth to the former.”

On the subject of budget cuts, Mr. Meese said there will be a general decrease in the rate of federal spending for education, but he denied that drastic reductions are planned. “We are trying to put those cuts in areas where they will do no harm or the least harm to existing programs that are beneficial,” he said.

Mr. Meese listed four functions that define, in the Administration’s view, the “appropriate” federal role in education:

Leadership from the President, the Congress, and the Cabinet to improve the quality of education and to set goals “which often will be met, not by federal action, but by state and local action";

“To provide, at least on an interim basis, the necessary funding for higher education and primary and secondary education and to provide accounting and fiscal integrity to go with that funding";

“To see what can be done ... about taking what is not federal funding and providing instead revenue sources to state and local government so we don’t have an additional layer of bureaucracy in education programs;" and

“To provide for the collection and dissemination of statistical and research data.”

Mr. Meese said the Administration seeks “a new style of federalism. We will be looking over the next few years at functions that are now performed by the federal government to see how we can turn them back to the states and local government. We also want to see how we can return revenue sources to support these functions.”

“Our goal,” he continued, “is to get the federal government out of the regulation and direct-service business. We want education returned to state and local authorities, with the federal government providing what necessary funding must come from that level.”

Strong Applause

“But the decision-making,” he said, “should be primarily centered at the place where the provision of education services actually occurred.” The administrators and board members responded to the statement with strong applause--one of the few such points in the address.

Mr. Meese noted that his audience was probably worried that block grants could mean that control was merely passing from bureaucracy at the federal level to bureaucracy at the state level. “In a sense,” he admitted, “this may be true.”

He suggested that school administrators and school-board members get to work to avoid that outcome. “In the long run,” he added, “I think you will be gratified by the results. It’s a lot easier to get things done at a lower level.”

The Presidential counselor’s remarks on bilingual education also prompted enthusiastic applause from the educators and school-board members. “We feel that the so-called bilingual education can best be determined at the local level,” Mr. Meese said. “And we feel we can best protect the rights of children with language barriers by permitting local school districts to choose the methods they determine to be most effective.”

“As we make changes,” Mr. Meese promised, “we want to consult with the people at the state and local levels so you will have a part in planning and so your views and your description of the problems you encounter will be understood and taken into account by those who are making the decisions at the federal level.”

Explaining why the Administration places great importance on competition among schools and students, Mr. Meese pointed out that “without competition, there can be no champions, no records broken, no increasing degree of excellence.”

“We believe,” Mr. Meese said, “that if equality of opportunity means a clear chance to grow as tall as you can intellectually, then we must not destroy the rights of our students who have been endowed with bright minds. They must have the right to become educationally unequal, in that they should be stimulated to rise to achievements of which they are capable.”

The Presidential counselor also addressed tax credits and vouchers, explaining that the Administration favors tax credits as long as they are not detrimental to the public schools and do not promote discrimination. He suggested that fiscal constraints make implementation difficult at the present time.

“It is our hope,” he added, “that a bill will be produced that at least initiates this program during the current session of Congress, which ends at the end of 1982.”

As for vouchers, Mr. Meese suggested experimental pilot projects “to see if this [idea] could work or not.”

Frugality Important

When asked later at a press conference if the public schools could learn anything from private schools, Mr. Meese replied, “The biggest thing they can learn is frugality. Generally, the overhead ratio in private schools is considerably lower than in public schools.”

Following Mr. Meese’s speech, the school officials reacted to the message from the White House.

Herbert Salinger, executive director of csba, said his members are pleased with efforts to increase decision-making at the local level, but they are unhappy about plans to scuttle the Department of Education. He noted that the csba Delegate Assembly voted 2-1 earlier this month to support retention of the department.

“Education,” he said, “deserves to be represented in the Cabinet along with Commerce, Transportation, and Energy.”

James Slezak, executive director of asca, said he “was very favorably impressed.”

“We need to be reminded,” he said, “that schools exist to help our families.” He said Mr. Meese’s statements regarding the Department of Education can be interpreted to mean the Administration will support a foundation for education, which, he added, “may very well provide strong support for education and a good delivery system to help our boards of education.”

But Ernest D. Moretti, asca president, was more skeptical than his colleagues. “The jury is still out,” he said. “I would like more time to hear what [the Administration’s] decisions are before making a judgment on Mr. Meese’s statements.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 21, 1981 edition of Education Week as President Reagan Values Education Meese Proclaims


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