Bennett's education

SECRETARY of Education William J. Bennett is expected to be a key player on the United States domestic scene. Important tasks lie ahead of him, and his ideas are going to be clearly stated. They certainly were Monday at his first news conference since taking office. Secretary Bennett sounded a call for a continued public commitment to improving American schools, and he laid out several major issues for the nation to grapple with, from the quality of future teachers to the ``content of every child's education.'' It was a thoughtful list not of itself likely to spark controversy. What is controversial is whether his view of education is appropriately focused on central educational issues, as supporters argue, or is too restrictive a view of education, as critics charge.

Also controversial is Bennett's defense of the Reagan budget proposal to trim tuition aid to college students. Some students abuse government aid, as he charged, but many do not: The aid makes a key difference in the quality of their education. Uncle Sam ought not to restrict grants as much as the administration seeks, if only for the sake of developing future leaders and gaining larger tax returns.

In any case Bennett can promptly take an important step to aid educational reform. Within the Department of Education he should put more emphasis on the gathering of statistics and other information that will permit objective comparisons of progress and standing among states, cities, and even individual schools. Too many current figures are flawed.

The first step should be centralizing the federal government's statistical work, now split among the Office of Education Research and Improvement, and two subdivisions: the National Institute for Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. For efficiency they should be consolidated.

The combined center ought to ferret out educational programs in American schools which work, identify how and why they do, and mount an aggressive campaign to let states and school districts know about them. In such a supermarket of ideas school officials throughout the United States could ``shop,'' selecting from among the proven ideas those that held the most promise for their schools. Given good information, the American people will fix up their own schools.

Two of Bennett's ideas that deserve special mention are tuition tax credits and vouchers. Tuition tax credits would offer parents a federal tax credit for at least part of the cost of tuition at any private or parochial school. Vouchers could be more carefully directed: A limited plan could permit them to be used for specific purposes, or at certain kinds of schools, but not for others.

Bennett, and President Reagan, favor providing tax credits to parents who enroll children in private or parochial schools. On balance the idea should be rejected for several reasons.

It weakens the public school systems by depriving them of many of their best students, when the percentage of American students in private and parochial schools is growing. It provides an inequitable subsidy to middle-class parents to send their youngsters to private schools.

And in the case of parochial schools, tax credits breach the constitutional separation of church and state.

Under the alternative idea, parents would be given education vouchers payable to whatever school they enrolled their children in. This approach has appeal for those who believe their children would receive better education elsewhere than at their local public school. The idea of a voucher plan for general use at any school should be rejected, but it is more attractive than tax credits to achieve very specific social goals.

No voucher plan should be enacted that enabled parents to enroll children, with public support, in church-sponsored schools. Nor should one subsidize middle-class parents in sending children to private schools.

Several states are contemplating voucher systems. Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm proposes vouchers for public school dropouts so they could attend any school they wanted. He considers it more important for young people to gain a high school education than it is to argue over the sponsorship of that school. Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander is considering a year-long study of a voucher plan to permit students to enroll in a neighboring public school system.

Any voucher system should have precise limits, through legislation, that define exactly how vouchers could be used, and how they could not. There ought also to be clear penalties for misuse. ----30--{et

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