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

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.

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.

Department officials say they are encouraged by recent Gallup polls showing a majority of Americans favor vouchers. They admit the success of such a bill -- which has little support in Congress -- depends heavily on rallying local support. Analysts doubt the Chapter 1 bill will pass anytime soon. They note that even such staunch advocates of radical reform measures as Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee won't support the private school vouchers supported by DOE.

For the department, the other two C's -- content and character -- are closely related.

In the new school year, DOE will continue to monitor and confront the ``dumbing down,'' or erosion of content, of school textbooks. Publishers have been dumbing down texts for many years as student test scores have fallen. Challenging material is omitted, and lower standards are the result. History and science texts are especially vulnerable, say DOE officials. They plan to meet with publishers this year to help reverse the trend.

The fact that Mr. Bennett will teach ``The Federalist Papers'' to junior high and high school students in five schools across the country this September ``makes a point about content,'' the secretary says. ``We won't be talking about favorite TV shows.''

Bennett will teach Federalist Paper No. 10 -- a missive from James Madison to the state of New York that ``lays out the heart of the argument on behalf of the Constitution,'' Bennett says.

Later this fall, DOE selects an exemplary school program that teaches character and citizenship. DOE is reviewing some programs established in schools around the country. Special discretionary money would be spent to promote the program nationwide.

And finally, DOE staffers will spend time this fall identifying the kinds of moral lessons children are being taught in the schools. ``We feel parents want to take a more active role in questioning the sort of values their children are being taught,'' Undersecretary Bauer says.

Other DOE priority items include:

A major reorganization of the National Institute of Education (NIE). Bennett will streamline the research and information branches of DOE, removing ``the superfluous bureaucratic layers'' that have ``burdened'' the research operation. Bennett seeks to make ``reliable data'' on all aspects of American education more readily available to the press and public.

Student loans. In an effort to reduce the number of student loan defaults, the Internal Revenue Service, in conjunction with DOE, is sending out ``warning letters'' this fall to those students who are behind in student loan payments. Next spring, the IRS will hold back tax refunds up to the level of loan default. Secretary Bennett is also urging Congress to write new legislation this fall for loan repayment, including measures to lengthen the statute of limitations on loan collections in some states, se t up multiple installment loans, and reduce loan reinsurance.

Currently, less than 5 percent of students have actually defaulted on their loans. Tom Wolanin of the House Committee on Post-Secondary Education says, ``The issue is presented in such a way as to make many ex-students seem like deadbeats. Given that these are young people with little credit and experience of loan payment, their record isn't as bad as it's being made to seem.''

School prayer. The department will continue to support President Reagan's constitutional amendment that would forbid restrictions on prayer in public institutions, including schools.

Tomorrow: What is the proper place of the Bible in public schools?

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