The White House, facing solid congressional opposition, has all but given up on President Reagan's 1980 campaign promise to abolish the Department of Education, administration officials said yesterday.
Spokesman Larry Speakes, asked by reporters whether Reagan still wants to eliminate the department, said that the president has not repeated his campaign promise recently, and that "obviously, it could be very difficult legislatively."
Other White House officials said the administration has given up attempting to persuade Congress to abolish the department because of strong opposition on Capitol Hill.
They said it remains to be determined whether the president will go along with those advisers who want the department given a new mandate centered on proposals in the recent report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The president will soon consider a set of options on the future of the department, officials said.
Reagan, in a Rose Garden appearance before student competitors in the 56th annual National Spelling Bee, repeated his belief that "there's too much federal government in education."
He recalled that he had promised to eliminate the department, but he stopped short of saying he still intends to do so.
"I think we should remove federal influence in education," Reagan told reporters while handing out autograph cards to the spelling bee contestants.
Speakes also stopped short of saying that Reagan's campaign promise remains intact. Instead, he said, there is "an opportunity for the functions of the department to continue."
The spokesman reiterated Reagan's stated belief that federal aid for education, which was greatly expanded in the years after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, had not "borne fruit."
Education Secretary T.H. Bell said last week that the White House has asked him to help develop an "agenda for excellence" in education around some of the recommendations of the commission report, including merit pay for teachers and stiffer high school graduation requirements.
The president, who has been devoting more attention to education issues recently, is scheduled to address a forum in Minneapolis Thursday on the commission report.
The Democrats also have been increasingly outspoken on education matters in recent weeks. Yesterday, aides to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said he will introduce a measure this week seeking $500,000 for a "national summit conference" on education.
The proposed conference would include no fewer than 200 representatives of business, education and labor, selected by the president, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.).