Forum Said Successful in Rallying Support for Change
Indianapolis--By many accounts heard here, Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell's wish for the national forum on excellence in education last week was fulfilled. In drawing national attention to education, participants said, it is likely to do much to make the topic a key political issue between now and the November elections.
Elected officials at every level who ignore the topic of education reform in the months ahead will do so at their political peril, according to many of the 2,500 educators and politicians here.
"Every candidate in the primaries and general elections is going to have to have a program to improve education," said Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, one of several speakers at the forum to advocate reforms in the public-school teaching profession.
The political pressure building for substantive education reforms is suggested by recent polls, he and others noted. "We're finding that if you are an elected official, and you don't attend to education, you will be in trouble politically," said Geoffrey D. Garin, senior vice president of Peter Hart Research Associates, a Washington-based firm that is doing the polling work for the Mondale Presidential campaign. ''This is true nationwide and filters all the way down to mayoral races."
He added that "the public wants accountability in education. It's not like the 1960's, when the feeling was that more money was the answer. Taxpayers want more accountability of teachers and students."
Gov. Kean noted in an interview that recent polls done for him in his state offer "one very, very strong message: If policymakers ask for more money for education, it better be accompanied by proposals for measurable change. But if there are [such proposals], there is overwhelming support for increased spending for education."
Mr. Garin also noted that some polls suggest the Republican Party in recent months has "neutralized" the political advantage Democratic candidates traditionally have held in the use of the education issue.
Several participants said that while the Administration's sponsorship of the forum was a "marvelous stategy" that may improve the Administration's standing with the public on the education issue, the President may quickly lose some of this support if he fails to offer proposals for federal initiatives soon.
"If the gap between rhetoric and delivery is large, the President may well hurt the Administration politically," said Michael Timpane, dean of Teachers College at Columbia University.
Mr. Reagan, however, in a draft of his address to the forum last Thursday did not indicate whether any substantial new federal education initiatives will be forthcoming. He reiterated his support for school prayer, tuition tax credits, and merit pay, and repeated his criticism of "values-clarification" courses that "undermine students' belief in the fundamental tenets of our Judeo-Christian tradition."
Mr. Reagan said that "American schools don't need vast new sums of money as much as they need a few fundamental reforms," such as a restoration of "good, old-fashioned discipline," an end to drug and alcohol abuse in the schools, merit pay for teachers, higher academic standards, and a return to teaching "the basics."
Speaking in support of school prayer, the President said, "I just have to believe that the loving God who has blessed this land should never have been expelled from America's classrooms. When we open ourselves to Him, we gain not only moral courage, but intellectual strength."
The President also told forum participants that "since our Administration placed education at the top of the national agenda, we have been seeing a grass-roots revolution that promises to strengthen every school in the country."
He alluded to school-reform efforts underway in several states and school systems. He said the conference participants--primarily state and local policymakers--are "meeting America's educational needs with common sense, vigor, and prudent use of taxpayers' dollars that Washington could never match."
It was unclear last week how the President's message, which lacked word of new federal initiatives to support the reform movement, might affect his ability to use the education issue to his political advantage in the next 11 months.
For many participants, the discussions over the role of the federal, state, and local governments were the ones that generated the most heated controversy at the forum. Keith Geiger, vice president of the National Education Association, said, for example, "Everything the Reagan administration offers in education amounts to nothing more than 'show and tell.' They refuse to discuss or do anything about the issues." Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, warned the Administration in one session that "if those who wish to limit the federal role in education [simultaneously] pursue excellence in education, I fear excellence may be pursued at the expense of equity."
Others expressed concern about the ability of many states and school systems to pay for the proposed reforms without the help of the federal government.
Because of such concerns, some participants speculated that Secretary Bell's success in stimulating interest in school reform among the policymakers at the forum, characterized by many as a valuable nonpartisan event, may have put him in an awkward position. The Secretary is apparently caught, they said, between those elected officials and educators who are looking to him to lead the education-reform movement with new federal initiatives and others within the Reagan Administration--Budget Director David Stockman chief among them--who are seeking to limit the federal investment in education.
"I'm constantly pressed," Mr. Bell told the forum participants, "on the question of how we are going to respond to the reform movement. I can tell you we are in the midst of a great debate within the Administration on that issue."
"Now let me say, before you stomp out of the room totally discouraged," he added in his keynote remarks, "that we already have a couple of initiatives, not very large ones, but very significant ones that I think we are going to be able to come forward with." He did not elaborate.
The Secretary disputed recent press reports that the Administration has decided on a fiscal 1985 budget of between $13.5 billion and $15.4 billion. That range would be considerably less than the Education Department's initial request, reported by informed sources to be about $16 billion.
"We're still talking," the Secretary said.
Sources familiar with the White House debate suggested last week that President Reagan has been supportive of Secretary Bell's internal advocacy of higher federal spending in education, in the face of opposition from Mr. Stockman and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver.
"Bell's got the President's sympathy, but not that of hardly anyone below him," one Administration source said.
It is uncertain whether the President will make the final decision on the fiscal 1985 education budget or defer to Mr. Stockman, who is reportedly arguing against budget increases for most federal agencies. Education Department officials said the Secretary is likely to seek a hearing on his budget before the White House budget-review board, which is a panel of top Administration officials, including the President, that mediates budget conflicts.
The President announced one new program at the forum. He said he will establish a President's Aca-demic Fitness Awards Program to "recognize outstanding student achievement." It would be modeled, the President said, on the President's Physical Fitness Awards and coordinated by a Commission on Academic Fitness, which he will appoint.
According to Education Department officials, the 2,500 participants attracted to the forum--twice as many as expected--included 8 governors, 10 members of the Congress (1 Democrat), 150 state legislators, about 30 chief state school officers, and some 60 college and university presidents.
The forum's major sessions and numerous discussion panels focused on three major topics: improving the teaching profession, raising schools' expectations and standards, and defining the federal, state, and local roles in carrying out school reforms.
Many participants praised the forum for promoting what they called "an important, growing consensus" on school reforms--especially those involving teachers.
In his closing remarks to the forum, Secretary Bell called on each state to meet four goals by 1989. He asked them to cut their student dropout rates to below 10 percent; to surpass the average college-admission-test scores of their 1965 graduating seniors; to increase graduation requirements in basic subjects and require students to pass an examination in each; and to raise teacher salaries to make them competitive with the average entry-level salaries of college graduates in business and engineering.