President Reagan has launched a major new political push on education issues that foreshadows a larger "base-broadening" effort for a 1984 campaign designed to draw on traditional American family values and concerns, according to administration officials.
Although it is not certain that Reagan will seek another term, they said, he has decided to meet the Democrats head-on this summer and autumn.
The immediate goal is to carve out new territory for Reagan on education issues, such as merit pay for teachers, that are expected to figure prominently in next year's presidential campaign. "This is a dormant, sleeping giant of an issue," a Reagan adviser said.
The long-range strategy is to expand the agenda for a Reagan reelection effort beyond the preeminent issues of the economy and foreign policy. "We want to hit on other subjects close to home," another administration official said.
"When we get to November, 1984," he said, "we want the American people to know Reagan stands for quality education, for law and order. Nobody is going to win or lose the presidency on an education platform, but we want to get back to basic values."
Republican pollster Robert Teeter, assisting the White House effort, added, "The notion of a good education for your children is as strong a value as there is in this country."
The president's new emphasis on education came about, in part, because of polls done for the White House by Teeter and Richard Wirthlin. They show that, as economic worries have begun to ease, schools and education have surfaced as strong public concerns.
Because of the impact of foreign competition and the high-technology revolution, Americans are more concerned about the quality of education than at any time since the early 1960s, according to some polls.
That mood was reinforced by the recent report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which found a "rising tide of mediocrity" in public schools and called for many changes, including longer school days, more homework and higher teacher salaries.
Reagan was further drawn toward education as a political issue by the early effort of Democratic presidential candidates, especially former vice president Walter F. Mondale, to make it a primary point on which challenge to Reagan.
Three weeks ago, Mondale, an ally of the powerful National Education Association, called for an $11 billion expansion of federal aid to education. Shortly thereafter, Reagan, in a commencement address at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., fired back with an endorsement of merit pay for teachers. The NEA and other teacher organizations have long opposed that idea.
According to several administration officials, White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver has been instrumental in urging the president to emphasize education more.
That would be a contrast to the first two years of his presidency, in which Reagan's approach to education was characterized by budget cuts in many federally supported education programs. It was also defined by narrow issues, such as tuition tax credits, school prayer and the abolition of the Department of Education, that were directed at Reagan's conservative base of support.
But Reagan is now beginning to test approaches designed to reach a far broader audience of voters, according to administration officials and GOP strategists. In particular, he hopes to appeal to the blue-collar workers and Hispanics who were part of his 1980 coalition but who have since strayed.
This "base broadening," as one official called it, is the goal of Reagan's new emphasis on education issues. "Politically, what makes it very attractive is that it can be an umbrella to get to the issues of crime, drugs, foreign competition and retraining for jobs," Teeter said.
In his Seton Hall speech, his most recent formal news conference, remarks to a group of high school valedictorians and other appearances, Reagan has repeated his familiar calls for tuition tax credits and school prayer. But there have been significant new wrinkles in his comments on education that reveal the broader approach.
One was Reagan's declaration at Seton Hall that "teachers should be paid and promoted on the basis of their merit and competence." Polls done for the White House show that this idea enjoys strong public support.
He also endorsed the master teacher plan pushed by Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who wants to offer $7,000 incentive payments to certain teachers.
Teachers' unions oppose the merit pay and master teacher concepts on the grounds that they have not worked to improve the quality of education. The NEA claims Reagan is making a "disgraceful assault" on the teaching profession. And lobbying by Tennessee teachers has bottled up Alexander's plan.
Reagan has staked out his ground against the NEA and any Democratic candidate seeking the unions' support. Mondale and Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) are strongly identified with the NEA, but Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), Mondale's chief rival so far, is not.
Merit pay for teachers is not an issue likely to dominate the 1984 campaign, one administration official said, but is important because it is "the one on which we're diametrically opposed" to the Democrats.
"If the Democrats want the NEA endorsement, they will have to pledge loyalty to the teachers at the expense of parents. There are many, many more parents out there than teachers," the official said.
At the same time, Reagan seemed to have been thrown on the defensive about budget cuts in education, an issue seized by Democrats. Polls show that Americans generally are willing to pay more for education, and schools rank high on the list of activities they believe should be better funded.
The administration, however, has tried repeatedly to cut federal aid to education, which comprises about 10 percent of all school spending in the United States. Reagan has continued to insist, as he did at Seton Hall, that the huge expansion in federal aid over about the last decade "failed" to buy results in the classroom.
But Reagan has also recently dodged the question of his budget cuts. Asked about "cutbacks in federal funding for education," Reagan told the valedictorians, "there haven't been cutbacks in funding for public education." Ignoring federal cuts he had sought, he said that total federal, state and local school spending amounted to $116.9 billion this year, "and that's 7 percent more than last year."
White House officials emphasize, however, that Reagan hopes to capitalize on education not as a dollars-and-cents issue but as a reaffirmation of his commitment to traditional American values. Democrats, in contrast, hope to keep the limelight focused squarely on federal aid and the federal government's role in education.
A related issue not fully unfolded is Reagan's 1980 campaign pledge to abolish the Department of Education, established largely because of lobbying by the NEA. Congress has shown no willingness to dismantle it.
Some administration officials are considering a new approach. One said that Reagan's 1980 pledge to abolish the department is "long gone as an idea" but that the president could benefit by "giving it a different mission."
That mission, several officials said, could be linked to the education commission's report. They said they think that Reagan should establish a two-year "agenda of excellence" and order the department to carry it out. Reagan hinted at this approach at Seton Hall, saying that the government can "help set a national agenda for excellence in education . . . ."