Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell has begun a quiet campaign to gather support for the plan to turn his Cabinet agency into a foundation.

The secretary and two aides met at the White House Wednesday with a group that included Alabama's Democratic Gov. Fob James and Republican legislators and school officials from several states. He told them legislation creating a foundation would be a step toward curing the problem of Congress acting as a "super school board" and the courts interfering in education issues, according to participants.

At one point Bell was quoted as saying, "Education is to the states as national defense is to the federal government." Bell has denied that dismantling the department is the first step toward eliminating federal aid to education.

But interest groups seem sure to take the private comment as a sign that there is a hidden motive for the move to a foundation.

Anne Graham, the department's assistant secretary for legislation and public affairs, said Bell plans similar meeting with other out-of-town groups, as well as one-on-one meetings with key members of Congress to test the foundation plan. "The consensus within the administration so far is it's the best option," she said. "Now we have to see if the rest of the world will buy it."

The sources gave this account of the one-hour session: In answer to a question from James, Bell said he did not want to transfer the department's office of civil rights to the Justice Department because lawyers there were too liberal.

Some of them, he was quoted as saying, interpret laws against sex discrimination in education so strictly they think "the women's volleyball coach at Alabama should be paid as much as Bear Bryant."