Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell refers to his position as a bully pulpit, and one of his favorite sermons lately is on the need to bring America's schools into the computer age.
Since youngsters thrive on Pac-Man at the video arcades, the reasoning goes, why not use the computer to help teach basic skills such as reading and math? Some schools around the country have jumped into the new teaching world, but others lag. So one of Bell's top priorities is a "new technology initiative" aimed at using federal resources to spread the word about innovative uses of computers in the classroom.
The idea, however, is sparking controversy even before the secretary and Donald J. Senese, his assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, unveil it at a national satellite hookup "teleconference" scheduled for June 22. New Right publications and some of Bell's subordinates are sniping at the program, saying it flies in the face of President Reagan's goal of reducing the federal role in education. Some even predict it could lead to a national computerized curriculum.
A recent Heritage Foundation newsletter criticized an internal Education Department report on the initiative for saying that the federal government had to finance about $5 million worth of research on computer programs for school use because private industry won't do so by itself. The upcoming Human Events gives the issue front-page treatment under the headline that Bell's department "betrays Reagan policies." It calls for the secretary's resignation.
Conservatives in and out of the department were even more suspicious of Bell's plans when they found that a company once part of the National Education Association, the teachers' lobby and prime enemy of the right, has a contract to stage the teleconference.
Human Events called the Basic Education Skills through Technology (BEST) program "a key part of this initiative" and said it "is a blueprint for an unprecedented degree of educational centralization." Henry Ingle, director of the BEST project, said his group is providing only the technical assistance for the teleconference.
Senese said the conservative journals misunderstand the program goals. He said less than $1 million will be used this fiscal year, some for demonstrating good computer programs being used at so-called "lighthouse schools."
Although there is a possibility of funding grants for schools and private industry to develop software in fiscal 1983, Senese emphasized that the federal government "won't be developing courseware or curriculum."
The 40-year-old Senese, a former House Republican Study Committee staffer and college professor, said the BEST contractors were picked to stage the teleconference as "a marriage of convenience" because they already were planning a smaller conference to help train educators in several states in the new technology.
The larger conference, he said, may reach 6,000 people in 45 states, using public broadcasting stations. It will include a 60-minute videotape of Bell and Senese explaining the federal role in the initiative and 30 minutes of live questions and answers from a few "selected sites."
Senese said he isn't bothered by the criticism from his own political camp. "They have been after the president, too," he said. "I think I'm in pretty good company."