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Education Under Fire

March 19, 1986

Terrel H. Bell, outwardly the quietest of officials when he held the job as President Reagan's first education secretary, now sounds like the mouse that roared. In an article in the Phi Delta Kappan education journal, Bell performed a public service as one of the first people from inside the Reagan Administration to decry the influence of rigid ideologues whose "radical and off-the-wall ideas" affect government policy today. Tantalizing as his revelations are, Bell's article is even more important in delineating the Administration's inability to state a coherent federal education policy.

Bell described the influences being felt not only in the Education Department but also in the State and Justice departments. The Reagan election signaled the beginning of a revolution to members of the conservative movement, who distrust even life-long Republicans who are not fully in tune with their "radical, anti-government dogma," Bell said. These movement conservatives automatically support their own when vacancies occur, have their own network and meet regularly, and debate policy and pursue their own ends with a frightening and "uncompromising viciousness."

Many even wear neckties "bearing the likeness of Adam Smith and other items of ornamentation that identify them as true patriots and faithful revolutionaries," Bell added. To his surprise, movement members who had been "insultingly abusive" in print toward the President still had friendly access to the White House corridors.

Bell wrote that he was up against conservatives who "believe that not a dime of federal money should be spent on education." They want to abolish all financial aid for students, all civil-rights enforcement authority, all federal responsibility for education of any kind. Some would even take the state and local government out of education as well. "Had their views been adopted as national policy," Bell wrote, "American education would have been changed so dramatically that the system of public education as we know it today would no longer exist."

Reagan wanted to cut federal spending and otherwise reduce federal responsibilities and judicial activity within education, Bell said, butdid not seem bent on abandoning financial aid for college students or for the handicapped and disadvantaged.

The opposition and occasional insubordination of these movement conservatives left Bell unable to steer any consistent course. He eventually stopped fighting for one, deciding that he might lose and that no policy was better than what might emerge from a conservative victory. Bell's article credits the critical education report, "A Nation at Risk," with turning the tide. It was on the front pages and drew attention from governors and state legislators, strengthening Bell's position.

Appointed to dismantle the Education Department, Bell even decided that it was important to have a Cabinet-level position to maintain the strength to fend off the conservatives and their narrow views on the federal role. Bell's article,in turn, shows how important it is to have people with open minds in high places.

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