Bennett and Watt

IT grows increasingly clear that William Bennett, the new secretary of education, is the James Watt of the second Reagan administration. Two of Mr. Bennett's senior administrative appointees appeared before Sen. Lowell Weicker recently, at which time their extremely conservative ideas about federal funding for the handicapped in education offended the senator and many others.

Dr. Eileen Gardner said that handicapped people had ``selfishly drained resources from the normal school population,'' and that a person's disabilities ``fit his level of spiritual development.''

A second appointee, Lawrence Uzzell, equated increased help to the handicapped with declining Scholastic Aptitude Test scores nationally.

It is unclear how much Bennett did or did not know about their views. None of the possible scenarios reflect well on him.

If he knew, then why did he appoint them?

If he did not know, then why not?

Apparently the secretary decided to establish a new Office of Educational Philosophy and Practice reporting directly to him. In other words, he decided to have an in-house think tank, a place where policy options are considered. The two appointees in question had been chosen as part of the ``talent'' for this new venture.

For something so important, so close to the front office, presumably so influential, one must assume that the secretary would choose people whose talent and ideas he admired.

But Secretary Bennett has written Senator Weicker that Dr. Gardner's views are ``repugnant'' to him, adding that there are several areas where his views and those of Gardner and Uzzell part company.

But why didn't he know that earlier? Even the most rudimentary staff work or interview should have revealed their strongly held views, which were indeed no secret. If one takes the more charitable view that the whole episode is the result of sloppy staffing then several questions come to the fore:

Why, with so many able and talented educators in the country, were these individuals chosen and by whom. Were they really Bennett's people or were they being pushed on him by the White House. Are there others?

Out beyond Washington a cabinet secretary may be known by his or her television appearances. But in Washington reputation is built as much on appointees as on policy. At this point Bennett looks bad. He is a sloppy administrator, a man out of his league, or a man out of touch with his times. Or all three.

What on earth could Bennett have been trying to achieve with the appointments of Gardner and Uzzell?

It all raises a harsh question: Does Bennett actually have an agenda? There is no doubt whatsoever that the more conservative factions among the president's advisers have an agenda for education. It is to spend less, to cut aid, and to make education -- higher education in particular -- more market oriented.

It would be easy to interpret much of what Bennett has said and done so far as diversionary, i.e., designed to draw public attention away from the debate of the budget process. He may simply be, from the White House point of view, the man in charge of smoke screens.

The views of Gardner and Uzzell are so outrageous that they could serve few other purposes unless Bennett actually believes as they do, which he has denied.

Many in and around this administration make frequent reference to the values and virtues of conservative Christian theology. Mr. Bennett will surely remember that a cardinal tenet of Calvinism is the responsibility each individual must take for his or her actions. What happened in Senator Weicker's hearing room is Secretary Bennett's responsibility and no attempt to ``distance'' himself from what happened will hide that fact from friends of education on Capitol Hill and beyond.

James Watt set about to turn the clock back. Thanks to many in and out of Washington his successes were mercifully few. Bennett appears to have inherited Watt's mantle. If that is not the garment he wishes to wear, then he had best be about dispelling that image.

Olin Robison is president of Middlebury College in Vermont.

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