Discarding two years of research by its Carter-era predecessor, a presidential advisory board on school finance is about to recommend that the Education Department be abolished, tax credits be given for private school tuition payments and the largest federal school aid program be scrapped in favor of a voucher system.
The suggestions come from the Advisory Panel on Financing Elementary and Secondary Education, whose 14 members were sworn in last August in a wholesale replacement of a panel appointed by President Carter at the direction of Congress.
The new panel kept the old panel's flowery preamble, and both agreed that some streamlining of regulations was in order. But aside from that, the final report represents a 180-degree change of direction, a set of conclusions so sweeping that they have created sharp dissent even among members of the new panel.
In an interim report a year ago, the Carter panel urged the Reagan administration to retain the Education Department and said it opposed any "substantive diminution" of the federal role in education. It also expressed reservations about block grants; the Reagan panel will heartily endorse these grants when it submits its report to President Reagan and Congress Friday.
The Carter panel did not vote on tuition tax credits or the concept of education vouchers--known derisively on Capitol Hill as "learn stamps"--under which eligible low-income parents would be given a certificate good for a specified amount of money toward a public, private or parochial education for their children.
"My strong sense of our panel was that neither of those would be supported," said Dr. Victoria Lederberg, a Rhode Island College professor who headed the Carter panel. "No more than three would have supported any attempt at tuition tax credits or vouchers."
But Connaught Marshner, a New Right activist who headed the Reagan panel, said yesterday, "What Jimmy Carter's people wanted is irrelevant. I think the report accurately reflects a conservative viewpoint."
However, the Reagan panel's report was approved by only seven of the 11 members present at its last meeting in Washington Dec. 16, and five members have since signed a strong dissent from the recommendations on tax credits and vouchers.
Virginia State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., a moderate Republican who voted against approving the report and authored the dissent, complained that Marshner pushed through a report written largely by her hand-picked executive director, using a kitchen timer to limit debate on the more controversial points.
"This report sprang full blown from the brow of Zeus," said Mitchell. "In none of the meetings was there any effort to get a balanced perspective. On every other panel I've served on, we've been given pros and cons, from which to pick alternatives. This one was just one-sided."
Marshner acknowledged yesterday that she deliberately excluded "pressure groups"--defined by her as teachers' unions--from the panel's meetings. "I would go out of my way to avoid hearing what the pressure groups have to say," she said.
She also acknowledged that she had used a kitchen timer at the panel's third and final meeting because the report was due in two weeks and "because there had been a tremendous tendency to filibuster--to gab on ad infinitum to no purpose."
In the dissent, Mitchell and four other panel members said the majority report used "questionable assumptions" in recommending that the Chapter I (a) program, the largest federal aid program for elementary and secondary schools, be put on a voucher basis. Formerly known as Title I, this provides funds for schools to meet the special needs of low-income pupils.
"We regard the entire concept of vouchers as a quagmire of uncertainty, neither the practical implementation nor the educational value of which has ever been proven or even adequately tested," the dissent said.
In addition, the dissenters said that the tuition tax credit proposal "represents a direct federal expenditure of well over $1 billion exclusively for private schools, most of which are located in eight states."
"There is no question but that tuition tax credits would be an economic boon to private schools and to certain middle- and upper-income parents," the dissent says. "There is no evidence with which we are familiar, however, that the proposal would benefit the overall quality of education, public or private, in the United States. The danger is that it would have precisely the opposite effect."
In addition to the majority and minority reports, Congress may get a response from the original panel.
But even Marshner doesn't expect great changes to follow in the wake of the controversial report. "It will sit and collect dust," she said. "I don't know of an advisory panel that had any impact on anything."