Indianapolis — It was billed as the Reagan administration's ''summit meeting'' on schools. But politics wasn't far from thought. The fact that the '84 election is just around the corner was not lost on the 2,300 participants in the National Forum on Excellence in Education.
Admittedly, the event was timed to influence state legislative agendas next year, according to the Education Department. This is the arena President Reagan looks to for education reform.
And after all, the convention's host city is the largest in the nation with a Republican mayor. Indiana has a GOP governor and two Republican senators, including Richard G. Lugar, who is set to head the Reagan reelection campaign.
The bipartisan conference was not intended to devise new strategies for school reform, but to make its participants aware of what is being undertaken in other parts of the country. It focused on how states and communities can raise education standards in testing and academic achievement, as well as teacher certification, promotion, and pay.
''The laws passed in the 1984 legislative sessions will determine how effective our nationwide response will be to the almost unanimous mandate that we accomplish a sweeping reform and renewal of American education,'' said Education Secretary Terrell H. Bell, addressing the group Tuesday night. After attention has been drawn to an educational problem, governors are the essential ingredient for reform, he added.
In a theme he has often sounded, Secretary Bell called upon governors to press ''not only for more competitive teaching salaries, but for career ladders that break with traditional lockstep salary schedules.'' But when asked what role if any the federal government should play in school reform, as well as its level of financial involvement, he deferred until after the President's State of the Union address in January.
Advanced copies of Reagan's address to the conference Thursday afternoon included no new proposals, but repeated familiar themes of local control and closer cooperation between business and schools. He also called for a return to ''good old-fashioned discipline'' and reinforced his support for merit pay for teachers.
The education secretary, however, hinted that next year's federal budget may contain some surprises.
''I am confident that when you have heard us out, you may not agree on all the points, but I am hopeful you will not be disappointed,'' he said.
The lack of any new financial commitment by the federal government, a position maintained from Day 1 of the Reagan administration, drew expected criticism from the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation's two largest teachers' unions. If no increase in federal funds results, the conference will be a ''charade,'' said NEA president Mary H. Futrell.
AFT vice-president Patrick A. Tornillo said base teacher pay should be raised before any money goes for merit pay. He also demanded that Washington increase education aid by ''about $3 billion next year for poor, handicapped, and bilingual children.''
The relatively few urban and minority educators present charged that the forum ignored the problems of urban and minority education.
During recent months, 36 states have initiated curriculum reforms, 40 have begun raising high school graduation requirements, and 11 are initiating performance-based pay for teachers.
Singled out for their roles in leading education reform were Florida, California, Tennessee, and New Jersey. Florida Gov. Robert Graham (D) said his state's recently passed education reform legislation - the most extensive in the nation - reflects ''a surge of optimism about the public schools.'' The measure:
* Increased high school graduation requirements to 22 academic credits from 18, with another increase to 24 called for in the 1986-87 academic year.
* Increased the total hours of instruction for the 1984-85 academic year from 900 to 1,050, extending the school day for 11th- and 12th-grade students by one hour.
* Appropriated $80 million for merit-pay increases.
* Created a new ''master teacher'' category designed to improve the status of the teaching profession and attract more qualified college graduates. It has allocated $1 million for better training of school principals.
* Stiffened college admissions requirements to state universities.
Both Graham and Tornillo urged the federal government to pick up the tab for various welfare programs being paid for by the states.
''This would free up money for the states to spend on school reform,'' Tornillo said.
Another reform that will be closely watched is the alternative teacher-certification plan recently adopted by the New Jersey Legislature. It permits graduates of accredited universities and colleges to teach in the state's elementary and secondary schools without first taking college-level education courses in a teacher-training program.
''In the decade ahead, we estimate that fully half of all New Jersey's current teachers will retire or seek other employment,'' said Gov. Thomas H. Kean (R).
For Governor Kean, a former teacher himself, the need to provide qualified teachers in his state's classrooms is evident.
''Fifty-seven percent of the new students in New Jersey public colleges' education programs scored less than 400 on the verbal SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Tests, 800 maximum and 200 minimum). Forty-seven percent of them scored less than 400 on the math section. These are far below the averages of all New Jersey college-bound students. We cannot allow the academically deficient to teach our children.''
In California, a new modified version of the New Jersey idea gives local school districts the right, during a teacher shortage, to fill empty positions temporarily with instructors that have not yet taken education courses. The courses must be made up within three years, however.
''We would rather have somebody who knows the subject of math very well than have a certified PE (physical education) teacher retreaded to meet a certification requirement,'' says California state Sen. Gary Hart.
Tennesee will consider a modified master teacher bill that was proposed by Gov. Lamar Alexander but defeated by the Legislature this year. The plan, strongly endorsed by President Reagan, would set up four levels of compensation and certification for teachers, including a master-teacher designation.
If passed, the Tennesee proposal would cause a great shake up in the way teachers are compensated, say educators here.
State representative Steve Cobb (D) says taxpayers would be willing to foot the extra $1 billion the state needs to provide quality education if they could be sure ''they weren't buying more of the same, but were going to get real improvement for their money.''