Two years after virtually wiping out government support of science education in America, the Reagan administration yesterday proposed a $75 million crash program to rescue schools from an acute shortage of good science teachers.
Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell testified before the House Education and Labor Committee that about 7,000 new mathematics and science teachers would be produced each year by his department's program. Three new National Science Foundation programs included in yesterday's budget also would produce, retain and retrain more qualified teachers.
"Our economic strength, our military strength and our health and well-being depend to a very large degree on the fruits that modern science and technology, much of it developed by our own citizens, have brought to us," Bell said.
The Department of Education is proposing to give $50 million in scholarships to prospective science teachers. The NSF plans to spend $26 million on three new programs designed to keep teachers teaching and to improve their skills.
George A. Keyworth, science adviser to the president, said yesterday that the administration was funding a science education program this year after including no money in its last two budgets for science and mathematics teachers.
The programs in place when President Reagan took office "were not addressing the need," Keyworth said. "Now we have some programs that we believe will address the need." In the two years between the last time funds for science education were provided and yesterday's proposals, Keyworth said, "we got a lot of heat for not proposing some program. But at least we didn't put in some crummy programs."
He said that in Cabinet-level meetings and in conversations with the president, revitalizing American industry was discussed from many different points of view, but "it always came down to one common denominator. It always came down to" workers and their level of technical knowledge and training.
He said that the new commitment to science education "came directly from the president."
Within the Education Department, the administration plans to tackle the nationwide shortage of mathematics and science teachers with a sort of scholarship-plus-jobs program for unemployed college graduates, retirees and teachers of less pressing subjects, officials said.
Bell said that the program would be run at the state and local level, funded partly by federal grants to the states. The $50 million in grants would be matched by the states.
Under the administration's approach, modeled after a successful year-old program in Philadelphia, Bell said, school districts would recruit people with college degrees from among the unemployed, the retired and teachers of subjects with fewer students. They would return to college at public expense for a year "or a year plus a summer session at most," Bell said, and would emerge as qualified mathematics and science teachers.
However, Dr. Alexander Tobin, director of math education in the Philadelphia schools and creator of the model program, said that his new teachers will have taken about 27 semester hours of course work over three years. "They can't do it in one year under any circumstances that I can visualize," he said.
Howard Carroll of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' association, noted that the NEA's proposed legislation would cost as much as $4 billion. Bell's effort, he said, "wouldn't even touch the tip of the iceberg of need."
At the National Science Foundation, the largest new program will be a $19 million effort to train or retrain science teachers. Under the program, states or corporations will submit proposals to the NSF for teacher training.
Another new, $6 million program will be the Presidential Young Investigator Awards. These will be five-year grants for research, to attract some of the best students to stay in universities instead of taking better-paying jobs in industry.
Keyworth said the awards will begin at an average level of $30,000 per year for 200 winners. With matching funds from industry, he said, the grants might amount to a maximum of $100,000 a year.
Another program will give prizes annually to 100 of the nation's "master" science and mathematics teachers. The prizes will be $5,000, given to the teacher's school for use in improving science education, plus a trip to Washington to accept the award.