AFTER Terrel H. Bell was named Secretary of Education, his wife, Betty, packed their belongings into their jeep Wagoneer and a U-Haul truck and with her 20-year-old son, Glen, and 10-year-old son, Peter drove to their new home in Arlington from Salt Lake City, Utah. "The government doesn't pay moving expenses for political appointees, you know," Bell said.

The new Secretary of Education and his wife are clearly a breed apart from the average Washington mover and shaker. Not for them are emergency calls to an interior decorator to outfit a capital pied-a-terre, or a large house appropriate for elaborate sit-down dinners. "We're hicks," said Bell, sitting in a living room sparsely furnished with inexpensive furniture, plastic lamps and an oil painting by a friend.

Of course, Bell says he's a hick with the same air that Sam Ervin used to say he was a simple country lawyer. A miner's son from Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, does not become a member of a president's Cabinet just because fate smiles on him.

"Ted" Bell, 59 -- a devout Mormon, a one-time Marine, an author of six books including one that contains a recipe for finger paint, a former college professor who has also been a substitute school bus driver -- is in some ways more typical of a Jimmy Carter appointee than a Ronald Reagan one. A man of humble beginnings, whose main financial asset is a leased 95-acre sod farm in Utah, known for being unpretentious and soft-spoken, he seems somewhat out of place in the glamorous aura of formality and mink that the Reagans have created.

He is also in the peculiar position of heading a Cabinet department that his boss has vowed to abolish. The fate of the Department of Education is still uncertain, but Bell has a mandate to propose alternatives that may put him out of a job. "We've only taken a year's lease on this house," he said wryly, although he has no deadline other than a personal one of "sometime next summer" for proposing alternatives to the department.

He was the last Cabinet officer appointed and also the shortest -- "Being the shortest, I got to stand in front when the Cabinet had the formal picture taken," the 5-foot-6 Bell joked. His last-hired status also brought him the left-handed honor of being the only Cabinet member dis -invited to the president's State of the Union address -- there is a rule that at formal public events such as that, the entire line-of-succession to the presidency should not be all in the same place at the same time. "I went home and watched it on television," Bell said.

The issues confronting Bell place him in the middle of controversies dear to millions. As he likes to point out, 30 percent of the American people are involved, whether by employment or as students, in public education, and questions such as the role of the federal government in education, bilingual education and tuition grants command the intense interest of a great many people.

"The most serious problem we have in American education," Bell says, is the continuing decline of test scores. "The system, academically, is quite flabby," -- a sentiment that many how have experienced the near-illiteracy of some high school graduates would agree with. The answer, Bell feels, is "more discipline, more rigor," refusing to promote students who have not attained a prescribed achievement level, more parental involvement (something he thinks busing discourages) and more emphasis on demanding subjects like foreign languages, science and math. He plans to appoint a national advisory panel to concentrate on the problem.

His nomination and confirmation were not without controversy, primarily because as U.S. commissioner of education from 1974 to 1976 he supported the creation of the $14 billion Department of Education he is assigned to abolish. Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) in particular, delighted in reading quotes of Bell's from previous years, gathered from columns by The Wall Street Journal, Evans and Novak and William F. Buckley, in an attempt to discredit him when his confirmation came up for a vote on the Senate floor. The Wall Street Journal called Bell Reagan's "most perplexing" nomination.

"This nomination is really hard to believe and hard to understand," Proxmire said during the Senate debate. Proxmire claimed that Bell's previous statements did not match Reagan's promises, criticized the nominee for not giving specific timetables for cutting down regulations and eliminating the department, for contradicting himself on whether the federal government or the states should have the balance of power in education, and "weasel words" on the same issue of mandatory busing. (Bell had said he was opposed to busing "except where the educational benefits outweigh the societal and budgetary costs.")

But Bell had the support of his conservative fellow Republicans from Utah, senators Orrin Hatch and Jake Garn, and was confirmed with a 90-2 vote, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) being the only other nay. Garn chastised Proxmire for using "eastern sources" and maintained that "Ted Bell is as much a states' rights man as Jake Garn, Jesse Helms or Orrin Hatch."

In the first weeks of the new administration, Bell was in the news for dropping the proposed new regulations that would have required schools to provide bilingual education for students with little or no command of English. But, responding to protests from the Hispanic community, he recently announced that separate and voluntary bilingual programs would still be funded separately, rather than lumped into "block grants," the administration's device for giving localities more autonomy in spending money designated for different categories of social services, including education.

People who know and have worked with Ted Bell describe him as an honorable man, straightforward, a mediator, a team player and ambitious. A comment heard often is, "He seems to be sweet and nice on the outside, but on the inside he's a tough in-fighter."

"He's firm rather than adamant," said Bob Andringa, now executive director of the Education Committee of the States, a compact of 48 states that favors more state control of education. Andringa was the minority staff director of the House Education and Labor Committee when Bell was commissioner of education. "If people like strong emotional outbursts, they wouldn't see that in Ted . . . Internally he will be taking stands he feels strongly about, but once he's had the opportunity to make his point, he's a loyal trooper. He wouldn't be the type to resign on some principle."

Bell had been criticized for being slow to appoint the important positions of assistant secretaries, a delay attributed partly to the lateness of his own appointment and partly to internal differences with Reagan's top aides.One appointment, for example, was all but set when the White House vetoed Bell's choice, Christopher Cross, a former minority staff director for the House Education and Labor Committee. Bell, in turn, refused the pick handed to him and settled ultimately on a man he had initially selected as general counsel for the department.

"I think it was a case of one-for-one," said Cross.

Some of his critics point to his apparently shifting views on the creation of the department, bilingual education (in 1975 he signed even tougher guidelines that have forced hundreds of school systems to start bilingual programs) and tuition tax credits as evidence that he will be a "water carrier" for the administration, that he can be indecisive and follows the path of least resistance. But even his critics acknowledge his unquestioned credentials in and commitment to public education, and say that whatever the eventual form the department takes, Bell will be a strong advocate for public education in fashioning an alternative that will satisfy them.

Tghe Bell's house in Utah had a view of pristine mountains; now they look out on an Exxon station. For the third time in his career, they have traded the more relaxed atmosphere of the West for what he described as the "tension and vibrancy" of Washington.

In a sense Bell has a lower profile here than he did in Salt Lake City, where his wife, Betty, was occasionally stopped in the grocery store by people who had complaints or comments about something her husband had done as commissioner of higher education. Her life here is, as it was in Utah, defined by her family and her church (they are members of the Falls Church ward, the Mormon equivalent of a parish) and occasional official responsibilities. She speaks softly, with the kind of calmness that has a soothing effect on others. During a joint interview, she occasionally prompted her husband about some of his accomplishments, and did not seem bored to hear stories she had obviously heard before.

They met when she, the tenth of 16 children, was a 20-year-old teaching at a business school in Salt Lake City, after a stint at J.C. Penney's, and he was the 34-year-old superintendent of a small rural school district in Star Valley, Wyo., enrolling a student at the business school.

"There was Betty," said Bell, gesturing toward his wife with an affectionate grin. "You can see how pretty she is. I told my student that if she could get me a date with her teacher I'd see she got an 'A' in her course."

She was the daughter of a dairy farmer; he one of nine children whose father was killed in a manganese mining accident when he was 7. His mother supported the family on a monthly workmen's compensation check and sometimes took in laundry. All the kids worked at odd jobs; Bell was the typist for the local justice of the peace when he was in high school.

He was also, despite his smallness, a quarterback on the high-school football team. "But that's no accomplishment," he said. "In this little town where I grew up, you were a public coward if you didn't play football."

He went to Albion State Normal College "because it only cost $11.50 a quarter . . . I didn't know then what the college was. It turned out to be a two-year teacher training institute, so that's what I studied." He supported himself with a $17-a-month job funded by the National Youth Administration, a Roosevelt administration program. His mother used to send him a loaf of home-baked bread every Wednesday. "They could sure smell that bread in that little country post office," he said.

After Albion, Bell enlisted in the Marines for 3 1/2 years during World War II, and was stationed at Pearl Harbor for a time. He was a machine gun instructor, and continued teaching on his return, changing the subject to science and athletics at Eden Rural High School in Eden, Idaho."I also was a substitute bus driver and led the band," he recalled.

From that point on, his career stayed on a steady upward climb as he earned his master's and doctoral degrees, moved from superintendent of a small district to a larger one, wrote books and articles, taught college and then became the Utah state superintendent of public instruction from 1963 to 1970. He finished his bachelor's degree at Southern Idaho College in 1946, got his master's at the University of Idaho in 1954 and a doctorate from the University of Utah in 1961.

In 1970, he came to Washington for a year as deputy commissioner for school systems in the U.S. Office of Education, then returned to Utah for three years as superintendent of a school district in Salt Lake City, and came back to Washington as U.S. commissioner of education, appointed by Gerald Ford. He served under Caspar Weinberger, David Matthews and Elliot Richardson while they headed HEW.

His support for a separate department of education stems from those years, which he remembers as frustrating because the layers of bureaucracy prevented the U.S. Office of Education from having any autonomy. "We were the lowest form of animal life," he said. "If making a separate Cabinet-level department was the only choice for getting it out of HEW, that was the way to go. That isn't to say it has to stay a Cabinet-level structure."

As a Cabinet officer, his day begins at about 7 a.m., when after a "hearty" breakfast with his wife and son, Peter, and his winter exercise of running up and down their three flights of stairs ("I find it helps me handle my tensions better"), he is driven to his office. He works en route, usually going through a "signature book," in which each letter that required his signature is placed next to the one it is a response to.

"Charles [his driver] got a ticket today," Bell said during a recent interview at home. "He went through an amber light. I offered to pay for it, but he wouldn't let me, so we ended up splitting it. Twelve-fifty each."

Peter goes to a public school in Arlington, Tuckahoe Elementary, which his parents selected before they decided where to live. His father, long an advocate of parental involvement in education, admits he "must budget my time more efficiently" to spend more time with Peter, so that in this case the cobbler's son does not go shoeless. The Bells' three older sons live in Utah in their family house. The two younger ones go to college part of the year and run the sod farm the rest of the time.

Being a Mormon is clearly a large part of Ted Bell. When he first came to Washington, he found that people joked about his religion a lot, finding it somewhat strange. "I tease 'em back," he said.

"We're kind of a different religion," said Betty. "I guess it seems strange to people," Mormons do not smoke, drink or take any form of caffeine.

Recently Bell hosted a small lunch at his office and he noticed that the steward had not made any coffee. "He thought that since I don't drink it he shouldn't serve it to anyone else. I assured him it was okay."

During one of his sojourns at HEW, his associates assumed that he was the one who put up the "No Smoking" signs in the conference rooms. He had not. And recently a former colleague, John Phillips of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, introduced him at a meeting by noting that Bell was a Mormon, and one thing about Mormons is, "When they wake up, they know that's as good as they're going to feel all day."

But Mormons have a high commitment to education, Bell said, pointing out that Utah has one of the highest levels of educational attainment and one of the lowest dropout rates in the country.

"The glory of God is intelligence," he said. "You're encouraged to learn all that you can. Not only in ecclesiastical ways but in every way. Progress toward perfection is related to knowledge. We say, 'As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become.'"

"But, of course," he added, "Mormons are not the only religion interested in education. A rabbi was visiting me the other day, and I told him I always felt the Jewish people were very intelligent and education-minded, and upward mobility oriented. There probably are Jewish people who aren't very bright, but I haven't met any of them. The rabbi laughed and said, 'I'm glad you have that opinion, but I can assure you some of them are slow learners!'"

Recently Bell announced that he was trimming four of the 13 top assistant secretary spots, all $50,000-a-year political appointee jobs, and 35 of the 47 deputy assistant secretary slots, a move sure to please the conservatives who have been hesitant about his conservative credentials.

He attributes the slowness of his appointments to his own desire to interview every possible candidate because "the best one may be the last one who walks in the door." He denies any under pressure from the White House and contends that "I have never found the administration trying to force upon me someone I didn't want, a refreshing change from the Nixon and Ford administrations."

"I can't say, 'You keep out of my sandbox.' It's the president's administration . . . He needs to know we're getting a good balance in that group."

Furthermore, he added, all the people he interviews want to know what kind of a future they'll have with a department that may be going out of business.

In response to worried questions about cuts in the education budget, which critics fear will put as many as 60,000 teachers out of work and 100,000 college students (of about 6 million) out of school, Bell notes that only 8 percent of the national budget goes to education and that if the cuts produce a reduction in inflation, local school districts will be able to supply more revenue.

Bell campaigned for Reagan in Utah, and before the election was asked by former boss Caspar Weinberger to prepare a "white paper" on education, one of several the campaign solicited. His name was among the first proposed for the Cabinet job, then shuffled aside as other names surfaced, including those of several women.

"I never dreamed I'd be a member of the president's Cabinet," Bell said, throwing up his hands. "I can't believe I'm here now. I don't know why they picked me. I mean, Lava Hot Springs, Idaho? Albion State Normal College? We're hicks.We're corny people."

"Who said?" asked Betty, laughing. "We're just ordinary human beings. But you know, the older I get, the more I discover that most everybody is pretty ordinary in most ways."