Terrel Bell, Known for Defending Federal Role in Education, Dies

By Robert C. Johnston — July 10, 1996 7 min read
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Shirley M. Hufstedler

In the early 1980s, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley was the governor of South Carolina, and he made education reform a top priority in his state. But a reluctant legislature threatened his reform package.

Enter then-Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell. In April 1983, a commission created by Mr. Bell released the report A Nation at Risk, which urged an era of school reform to end what its authors called a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education.

“It gave a national flavor to what we were doing,” Mr. Riley said in a recent interview. “He helped us get done what we had to get done.”

And so it was with fondness that Mr. Riley recalled his friend “Ted” Bell, who died June 22 in Salt Lake City of pulmonary fibrosis.

Such stories are common about Mr. Bell, the lifelong educator whose school-improvement message elevated him from obscurity in the Reagan administration to one of its most unlikely stars.

“Education reform as we know it today started with A Nation at Risk,” said Gary L. Jones, a former undersecretary to Mr. Bell.

But some observers, while they speak positively of Mr. Bell himself, fault A Nation at Risk for helping to make what they see as education-bashing a national pastime.

“I think it’s been impossible to say anything good about schools since that report,” said Harold L. Hodgkinson, the co-director of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership.

Department Targeted

Mr. Bell became the nation’s second secretary of education in 1981, the appointee of President Ronald Reagan, who took office committed to abolishing the fledgling Department of Education.

In August of that year, Mr. Bell sent the White House a detailed plan for carrying out that promise. He recommended downgrading the department to a foundation along the lines of the National Science Foundation.

Over time, however, Mr. Bell became increasingly convinced of the need for a Cabinet-level education agency, and he is often credited with saving the department.

“What he did was weave and bob. He elongated the process until the momentum died,” said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center for National Education Policy in Washington and a former longtime House Democratic aide.

“He stood up with courage to very strong political pressures to dismantle the department,” said Michael A. Resnick, the senior associate executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

But Mr. Jones said that the department was not abolished because “no one could deliver the political support to abolish it.”

Either way, Mr. Bell helped department staff members weather the tough rhetoric.

“He held the department together probably better than anyone else could have,” said Sally H. Christensen, the department’s director of budget services. “People liked him and knew he really cared. He was a real hero.”

Reform Commission

Meanwhile, Mr. Bell had sought to focus national attention on the condition and role of education through the appointment of a presidential commission. When the White House rebuffed his request, Mr. Bell himself formed the bipartisan, 18-member National Commission on Excellence in Education in August 1981.

“Even before he was secretary, he had received feedback that there was a public perception of problems in the education system,” said Milton Goldberg, the executive director of the panel, who is now with the National Alliance of Business in Washington.

White House officials had to be persuaded to hold a ceremony to release the resulting report. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform called for higher academic standards, beefing up teacher credentials, longer school days, and greater community involvement in schools.

When the report drew intense national interest, President Reagan soon began championing education reform and recognizing high-performing schools.

“We’d been in Siberia for two years. They just wanted to reduce our budgets,” Mr. Jones recalled. “Suddenly, Ted Bell and the department became important.”

But the administration’s enthusiasm eventually faded. And when Mr. Reagan, after his 1984 re-election, said the department remained a target for elimination, Mr. Bell resigned.

“There was simply no commitment to a federal leadership role to assist the states and their local school districts in carrying out the recommendations of A Nation at Risk,” he wrote in his 1988 memoir, The Thirteenth Man.

Lasting Impact

Still, educators credit A Nation at Risk with sparking such ongoing reforms as tougher graduation requirements, the national-standards movement, and numerous state and local education initiatives.

“The momentum that Ted Bell started is slowly growing,” said Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities. “He brought the issue of standards and a national role in education to the forefront.”

“It would be wrong to say that A Nation at Risk was a single cry in the wilderness, but an early and eloquent cry that became a chorus,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant education secretary in Mr. Reagan’s second term and a fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute.

But critics of A Nation at Risk argue that the report has actually hindered school improvement.

“It created an unfortunate image of education,” said Bruce J. Biddle, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Missouri and a co-author of the 1995 book The Manufactured Crisis. “Lots of good-hearted Americans were taken in by this.”

The report failed to draw attention to poverty and other societal ills, and it used unsubstantiated data to back its claims of a failing education system, he said.

But Mr. Biddle and Mr. Hodgkinson praised Mr. Bell for using the report to get people talking about schools. Mr. Hodgkinson said Mr. Bell’s successor, William J. Bennett, used the report to “bash the system and make it something else.”

Final Years

After leaving the department, Mr. Bell went home to Salt Lake City and directed youth activities at his local Mormon church. But he loathed the idea of retiring and formed a nonprofit consulting firm, T.H. Bell and Associates, in 1991 in an effort to remain involved in education.

Donna Elmquist, a senior partner with the firm, said Mr. Bell was disappointed that more had not been accomplished by A Nation at Risk, and never wanted it used as a tool against teachers.

Mr. Bell also continued his national advocacy on education issues. In 1995, he appeared along with Secretary Riley at a middle school in Arlington, Va., for the secretary’s annual “state of American education” address. Mr. Bell defended the Education Department, its programs, and efforts to set national standards in education at a time when the federal role in education was coming under renewed criticism from a new Republican majority in Congress. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1995.)

“It was partly out of the respect that I held for him that I asked him to introduce me,” Mr. Riley said. “It meant a lot to me. I’ll never forget that.”

Terrel Howard Bell

Nov. 11, 1921-June 22, 1996

Terrel H. Bell served as U.S. secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan from 1981-85.

Mr. Bell was born in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, and received a bachelor’s degree from Southern Idaho College of Education. In 1946, he began his education career in at a high school in Eden, Idaho, where he taught chemistry, physics, and athletics. He went on to become a district superintendent of schools in three states--Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah--and served as the state schools chief in Utah.

In 1970, he was appointed deputy commissioner for school systems in the federal Office of Education, then part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where he also served as acting commissioner of education.

He left Washington in 1971 to become the superintendent of the Granite school district in Salt Lake City, Utah’s largest district. He returned to Washington in 1974 to serve as the U.S. commissioner of education. He served in that post for two years, then returned to Utah, where he was serving as the commissioner of higher education and the chief executive officer for the Utah state board of regents when he was tapped to serve as the nation’s second education secretary.

Mr. Bell wrote several books and articles and received numerous awards for his service to education from groups such as the Council of Chief State School Officers.

At the Helm

The following six people have served as U.S. secretary of education:

Shirley M. Hufstedler

Former federal appellate court judge. Nominated in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter.

Terrel H. Bell

Former U.S. education commissioner. Nominated in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

William J. Bennett

Former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Nominated by President Reagan in 1985.

Lauro F. Cavazos

Former president of Texas Tech University. Nominated by President Reagan in 1988; was asked to continue in post by President George Bush.

Lamar Alexander

Former president of the University of Tennessee and former governor of Tennessee. Nominated by President Bush in 1990.

Richard W. Riley

Former governor of South Carolina. Nominated by President Clinton in 1993; currently in office.

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 1996 edition of Education Week as Terrel Bell, Known for Defending Federal Role in Education, Dies


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