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Secretary Bennett stirs lively debate in push for content, character, choice

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1985


Education Secretary William Bennett's current tour around the country as a ``schoolteacher'' underscores the tack he and the Department of Education (DOE) will continue to take this fall: keeping public attention focused on education and schools. Education is a hotter topic than it has been in recent years, leading educators say; issues of teacher shortages and school reforms are commanding more media attention. The outspoken Mr. Bennett and his department have helped in this process, educators agree -- even though many question the Secretary's conservative polemics.

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This fall, Mr. Bennett will continue to use his office as a ``bully pulpit'' for education. As a close aide says, the education secretary will continue to ``try stirring up national debate -- get people talking.'' Another insider says Bennett will work to break down the consensus among public educators that discussion of value-related issues in classrooms is unconstitutional.

A sampling of the issues Bennett will promote this fall includes the role and meaning of the country's Judeo-Christian heritage, and discussions of different types of political liberty.

If taking such a position continues to make him controversial, Bennett says, ``I don't mind being controversial.''

Analysts say Bennett's high media profile is intended to stir grass-roots support. Indeed, a key working assumption of the DOE is the willingness of ``the people'' to reform public education in their own local communities. This is in keeping with the conservative populist ideals of the Reagan administration. Last week Bennett told the Monitor that ``the American people know what the schools should do. But they have been ignored in recent years. So-called experts have taken the upper hand for sever al decades. It's time for the `experts' to get out of the way and let the people have the system.''

Undersecretary of Education Gary Bauer, a leading voice in the department, told the Monitor that ``meaningful reform'' won't take place from ``the top down.'' DOE ``can frame the debates,'' Bauer says, ``and pick out pressure points.'' But ``real change'' can only come about through ``the ferment'' within the nation's 16,000 local school districts, he says.

Some education lobbyists question the breadth of Bennett's constituency. Washington columnist Charles Krauthammer has noted that the profile of Bennett's ``people'' closely matches that of the religious right.

The debate DOE frames this fall is still found within the ``three C's'' Bennett outlined when he took office in February: content (confronting the erosion of academic standards); character (searching for ways students might examine their relation to such qualities as integrity and honesty); and choice (introducing legislation for school vouchers and tuition-tax credits to allow parents to choose which school -- public or private -- their children can attend).

The DOE is wasting no time on the issue of choice. Later this month, it will introduce a bill in Congress that would entitle low-income families to a voucher. Under the bill, Chapter 1 funds (money currently earmarked for remedial programs and given to local schools) would be given directly to parents.