WASHINGTON — Education Secretary William J. Bennett, issuing a challenge to presidential candidates, Tuesday urged Democrats to avoid embracing costly programs of unproven value and Republicans to give fair consideration to educational investments even if they are expensive.
Those making bids for the White House must "show strength and resolve" on education issues, rejecting knee-jerk positions based on their parties' traditional stances, he said.
Bennett called on the candidates to try to hold the line on federal spending and exhorted Democrats to break ranks with the National Education Assn. by supporting such proposals as merit pay and teacher testing.
Bennett's comments, made during a luncheon speech at the National Press Club, came three days before nine presidential candidates meet in Chapel Hill, N.C., to debate educational issues. His remarks were intended to influence the tone of the event.
Echoing his past criticisms of the NEA, the outspoken secretary said that every candidate should be asked: "On which issues will you stand with the NEA, and on which will you stand with the American people?" He called the 1.8-million-member teachers union "the most entrenched and aggressive opponent of education."
Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the NEA, dismissed Bennett as the "fastest lip in this Administration" and accused him of "exploiting education to position himself for higher office--the vice presidency or higher."
Bennett, a Democrat-turned-Republican, said education is "arguably the No. 1 domestic concern of the American people" and asserted that his advice to candidates was not based on partisanship.
Nevertheless, he chided Democrats for courting NEA support, asserting that "standing firm against the NEA will require a departure from the norm" for Democrats.
He said the NEA leadership's opposition to teacher testing and merit pay is out of step with the views of the American public and many teachers as well. Bennett cited 1984 exit polls showing that, despite the NEA's support of Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale, a majority of teachers voted for President Reagan.
Thus, he concluded, "For a candidate of the Democratic Party, defying the NEA on certain issues will be an act of political courage, but it will be far from an act of political suicide."
Bennett said that during this school year national spending on education will total $308 billion, more than any other nation spends. If more money is to be spent, he said, the public wants to be assured that the quality of education will rise.
In criticizing candidates who advocate "billion-dollar budget increases," Bennett did not single out Democrats, but President Reagan has frequently lambasted Democrats as the party of "tax and spend."
Turning to his own party, Bennett said: "When it comes to education, Republicans sometimes speak as if nothing is more important than to save money."
He urged Republican candidates to "do better than look at education through the green eyeshades of the accountant," suggesting that they offer a "distinctive, tough-minded and positive agenda" that includes improving the education of the disadvantaged.
He warned: "If the candidates resort mainly to mawkishness or profligacy, or to mere criticism and nostalgia, or to obeisance to special interests of the left or the right . . . then they will not advance the cause of education reform."