-30 Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell was the last Cabinet member to join Ronald Reagan's first administration. He is the first to leave the President's second. His early departure (Dec. 31) highlights the fact that the department's role in a second Reagan term is still very much up in the air.
But regardless of who replaces Mr. Bell, the administration is expected to continue the conservative ideological leadership on education issues which it provided in the first four years.
Bell arrived in Washington from Utah with his possessions in a U-Haul truck, expecting his tenure and that of the agency he would head to be short. The President planned to eliminate the Department of Education and return its responsibilities to states and localities, breaking what he considered to be a stranglehold of centralized, special-interest control over education policy. Congress showed no interest in such a plan and did not pass the necessary legislation to dismantle the department.
The Education Department's budget rose from $14.8 billion in fiscal year 1981 , when Mr. Bell took office, to $17.9 billion in fiscal year 1985. In the same interval, the number of employees declined 29 percent, from 7,000 to 5,000.
Ironically, on Bell's watch the department that was to be eliminated gained widespread prominence. With the publication of the report ''A Nation at Risk'' (the result of a national study commission appointed by Bell), the President himself seized the high ground, using the White House as a ''bully pulpit'' to champion his own conservative agenda.
It is unclear how much of a mandate Mr. Reagan will give the next education secretary. The four candidates mentioned as most likely to succeed Bell are William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; John Silber, president of Boston University; Donald J. Devine, director of the Office of Personnel Management; and Manuel Justiz, head of the National Institute of Education. What is certain, education officials say, is that budget constraints due to the large federal deficit will necessarily dictate what Mr. Bell's successor can do. There is little fiscal room to maneuver, and new programs are unlikely.
Whoever replaces Bell must be committed to ''excellence in education,'' says Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the 37,000-member National Association of Secondary School Principals. ''He must understand the strong relation between the economy and the schools and any policy which did not would be obsolescent and dated.'' Mr. Thomson concedes that the national budget crisis and its impact on financial aid to higher education may elbow out secondary and elementary education as priority issues.
''The new secretary of education has to be willing to go out and organize not a federal (policy) but a professional agreement on how to teach,'' says Bill Honig, California superintendent of public instruction. ''It's a national issue , not a federal issue. The federal government doesn't drive it but must play a major part in helping solve it,'' he says.
There is need for a thorough review of special programs funded by the federal government, Mr. Honig says. They must be ''truly supplementary'' to basic education provided at the local level and not serve ''separate federal empires'' held captive by special-interest groups, he adds.
Lawrence Uzzell, president of the Washington-based Learn Inc., a foundation specializing in education research, says there are two key questions conser-vatives will be asking of the next secretary of education: How high a premium does he place on parental choice (tuition tax credits and vouchers), and whether he realizes that the quality of education varies inversely with the size and power of the Department of Education?
Education officials say one challenge a new secretary is certain to face is the huge need for the training and retraining of teachers in the country.
Superintendent Honig concurs. California expects its student enrollment to go from 4.1 million today to 4.8 million in 1991, with most of the increase in the elementary grades. The state now has 160,000 teachers and expects to add 120,000 new ones (counting replacements and additional teachers) by 1991.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers' union, says the massive revitalization of the profession that was necessary before the election is still just as necessary now. ''This can be done for a little amount of money,'' he adds, ''if the will is there.''
One way teacher renewal could be brought about, and at little cost, says Mr. Honig in California, is to establish a commission to look at what books, what historical and philosophical works, and what authors a student who graduates from a teacher-training college should know before being licensed to teach. Since teachers pass on the heritage of the nation's history, they are, in effect , cultural ambassadors and should be considered as such, he says.
Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education at Vanderbilt University, says that in a second Reagan term, major changes in teacher training will be necessary. He feels the challenge to act on such changes is not limited to the education departments at America's colleges and universities, but constitutes a university-wide challenge, especially in science, math, history, and literature. But before Dr. Finn would be willing to see a more active federal role, he wants to make certain that local autonomy in deciding what is to be taught is not compromised (as he feels it has been in the past) by the tying of federal money to specific programs.
The most pressing issue the administration will face at the college and university level in a second term is more money - significant amounts - for student aid, says Denis Doyle, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But this is the area in which budget constraints due to the large federal deficit may have their greatest effect.
New York University president John Brademas, a former 11-term Democratic congressman from Indiana, points to the Office of Management and Budget's August guide to the fiscal 1986 budget, which singled out further cuts, especially in higher education. This ''means student financial assistance,'' he predicts.
In effect, what ''that OMB document says is, 'We did a fine job of substantially reducing federal support for elementary and secondary education, but not higher education,' '' Mr. Brademas continues. ''By 1989 they would reduce federal student aid by one-third from peak levels.'' This would be calamitous for higher education, he says. But student aid is ''just not going to be touched.''
''The ideological majority is not there in the Congress to effect such massive cuts as his (the President's) record and OMB want,'' he says.