President Reagan said yesterday that "we intend to put the basics back in schools and the parents back in charge" as part of an administration effort to "set a national agenda for excellence in education."
Education Secretary T.H. Bell said the president has asked him to develop a new agenda around such issues as improving high school graduation requirements and persuading states to adopt "master teacher" plans to reward distinguished teachers with better pay.
Bell said the president's request was developed in part out of suggestions made recently by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which found a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the nation's schools and called for tighter standards, more homework, a new emphasis on basics, higher teacher pay and other changes.
Polls have shown that Americans are more concerned about the quality of education today than at any time since the 1960s, and schools are becoming an early but potentially volatile issue in the 1984 presidential campaign.
Reagan, who had relatively little to say on education in the first two years of his term, is planning a series of education-related speeches this month, including an appearance next Thursday in Minneapolis that is linked to the commission report.
Also, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is planning next week to offer legislation that would create a "national summit conference" of teachers, parents and others on education issues, aides said.
In a videotaped message for broadcast last night at a meeting of Republican women in Indianapolis, Reagan said the administration's new agenda on education "will reach every child in our land."
That agenda will include merit pay for teachers, tuition tax credits and education vouchers, Reagan said.
But the president left out his earlier vow to abolish the Department of Education. Some administration officials are urging Reagan to leave this promise behind and instead give the department a new mandate to carry out the "agenda for excellence" in the schools. But no decision has been made.
Bell said another point on the agenda will be raising high school graduation standards to include more math and science courses, and a related push to increase the supply of teachers in these fields.
Another item, he said, will be persuading colleges and universities to give a higher priority to teacher education; to stiffen foreign language requirements, and tighten entrance and admission standards. He said this could be done without violating Reagan's long-standing view that schools are local matters in which the federal government ought not interfere.
The secretary also said the administration will be urging state legislatures to approve a master teacher concept like that proposed by Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
Under the concept, teachers who are recognized for distinguished work would receive higher pay. The Alexander proposal was bottled up in the state legislature by opposition from the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.
Although the NEA opposes the idea of rewarding teachers on merit, a powerful force in Democratic Party politics, the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers' union, has expressed interest in it. AFT President Albert Shanker said recently that his union will remain "open for discussion" on the issue.
In his comments last night to the Republican Women's Leadership Forum in Indianapolis, Reagan defended his record on appointing women to high government positions and cited achievements in helping women generally with lower inflation and interest rates.
Reagan said more than 1,000 women in the administration hold "policy-making posts" and claimed that "we appointed more women to top policy positions in two years than did any previous administration."
But the National Women's Political Caucus said Reagan had appointed one-third fewer women requiring Senate confirmation during his first two years than did President Carter during the same period of his term.