Bennett Named to Education Post; Is Told To Study Reorganization

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Assistant Editor Tom Mirga and Staff Writers James Hertling and Sheppard Ranbom contributed to this report. It was written by Mr. Mirga.

President Reagan last week nominated William J. Bennett to be the next secretary of education and ordered him, following his expected confirmation by the Senate, to conduct a study to determine whether the Education Department should be abolished or reorganized.

Mr. Bennett, who has served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities since 1981, would succeed Terrel H. Bell, who resigned from the Cabinet on Nov. 8. The President announced his selection of Mr. Bennett for the top position at the department Jan. 10 along with his choices of secretaries of the Interior and Energy Departments and of a deputy secretary of the Treasury Department.

Mr. Bennett declined reporters' requests for interviews last week. John Agresto, assistant chairman of the humanities endowment, said the Secretary-designate was "honored and pleased" by his nomination.

'Proven Ability'

"The President believes these nominees will provide exceptionally strong leadership as we enter the second term of his Administration," said Larry Speakes, the chief White House spokesman, at a press briefing here. "They are men of proven ability who have served in key positions in the government. They will make a strong team even stronger."

According to Mr. Speakes, Mr. Bennett's primary task following confirmation will be "to conduct a study of the department's functions to determine the proper organizational structure and role of the federal government in education."

"Although the President has often stated his belief that the Education and Energy Departments should be eliminated, he feels any such reorganizations should be fully studied and considered before any final decisions are made to reorganize," Mr. Speakes continued. "Asking for the studies does not necessarily constitute a decision to reorganize these departments."

Mr. Speakes said that although the President has not set a deadline for the completion of the study, he expects to receive it "at the earliest possible date."

"It's probably more a matter of months," he said.

Foundation Proposal

Former Secretary Bell was given a similar charge following his nomination in January 1981. His response, a proposal to downgrade the department to the status of a sub-Cabinet "foundation," failed to win support in the Congress and was never officially offered to the House and Senate for their consideration.

Mr. Bell also offered the Administration three other options for modifying the department. They included the creation of an independent agency, the merger of the department with the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services, or Commerce, and the dispersal of education functions among several federal agencies.

When asked why Mr. Bennett was being asked to re-examine the possible reorganization or dismantling of the department in light of Congressional opposition to the 1981 foundation plan, Mr. Speakes said that "with proper consultation, proper advice, and proper placement of the [department's] functions," the Congress might be persuaded to consider a new proposal.

Humanities in Schools

Prior to serving as chairman of the endowment, Mr. Bennett, 41, was president and director of the National Humanities Center at Research Triangle Park, N.C.

During his tenure as chairman of the endowment, Mr. Bennett has initiated several efforts to promote the teaching of the traditional humanities in elementary and secondary schools.

For example, the endowment recently announced the awarding of grants totaling about $450,000 to four colleges for programs to improve the quality of teacher preparation in the humanities as part of a new $2-million initiative to upgrade preservice training for teachers. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1985.)

The endowment has also financed fellowships for high-school teachers for independent study in the humanities and institutes in the humanities for elementary- and secondary-school teachers and principals. It provided support for national fo-rums in Atlanta and Denver in 1983 that were designed to foster joint ventures involving schools, colleges, and scholars to improve the quality of humanities instruction in schools.

One of the endowment's more notable efforts in the field of higher education was the production of a report released last month that criticized the condition of humanities education in colleges and universities. (See Education Week, Dec. 5, 1984.)

Criticisms of Tenure

Mr. Bennett's tenure has not gone uncriticized, however. Earlier this month, for example, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that many historians believe the endowment is funding research on the classics and great works in the humanities at the expense of newer fields of study. The story cited a report by the General Accounting Office that found that proposals in black, ethnic, and women's studies were being funded by the endowment at a lower rate in 1983 than they were in 1981 when Mr. Bennett became chairman.

In addition, Mr. Bennett's hiring practices at the endowment were the subject of a Congressional inquiry last year. Last July, the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Government Activities and Transportation held a hearing to examine the endowment's refusal to comply with a federal law that requires all federal agencies to file an affirmative-action plan annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

During the hearing, Mr. Bennett, in a reference to reverse discrimination, said that in his opinion, the endowment "is not accused of discrimination."

"Rather, we are, it seems, accused of not discriminating," he said. "To that charge I hope always to plead guilty."

Reaction Mixed

A number of educational leaders interviewed last week said they were generally pleased by the news of Mr. Bennett's nomination. Many noted that he is very articulate and appears to be committed to high standards.

Nonetheless, many representatives of precollegiate-education groups said that given Mr. Bennett's background in academe, he might not be receptive to the special needs of elementary and high schools.

"I question whether he understands the whole picture," said Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "I'm not certain that he has a full understanding of the importance and value of teaching vocational and technical skills."

"I have some anxiety about the fact that his background is higher-education-related to the exclusion of experience in K-12," added Calvin M. Frazier, Colorado's commissioner of education. "Ted Bell was effective because he brought both perspectives."

Vol. 5, Issue 17, Pages 1, 13

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