Education Secretary T.H. Bell today stepped up the Reagan administration's effort to make education a major 1984 campaign issue, sharply criticizing the National Education Association and the Democratic presidential hopeful to whom it is most closely tied, Walter F. Mondale.
In a partisan speech to the Republican National Committee, Bell attacked the NEA, the nation's largest teachers organization, for opposing merit pay for teachers, and Mondale for advocating an $11 billion increase in federal aid to education.
Bell suggested that the aid increase would lead to "federalizing our schools," which he said would be "the height of foolishness."
He said more federal money is not the answer to the schools' problems and that "until we make some long-past-due changes in education, our money will not be well spent."
He said that the NEA, which is expected to endorse Mondale, is standing in the way of reforming teacher pay scales because it wants to "cling to the same tired old system we have had in the past" in which teachers are paid on the basis of experience and college credits.
Bell's speech was part of a hard sell to convince GOP leaders that education can be a potent campaign issue. Party leaders were also given a copy of the recent report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which found "a rising tide of mediocrity in the nation's schools," and a briefing book on administration education policies. On Saturday they are to be briefed again on education.
The party leaders didn't need much convincing. Bell was given two standing ovations and was surrounded by autograph seekers when he finished speaking.
The GOP leaders have been gathered here since Wednesday for their annual summer meeting, largely for a preview of the 1984 Republican National Convention site. Little real business is on the schedule and the RNC members are spending much of their time being wined and dined by their Dallas convention hosts.
With the economy and President Reagan's popularity improving, the mood among party leaders is generally optimistic. White House political affairs director Edward J. Rollins added to the upbeat atmosphere today by saying, "I think without a doubt that the president is going to run for reelection.
"Ronald Reagan has never been a man to walk away from a fight," he said, adding that much of the business the president had hoped to accomplish when he entered office is still unfinished.
Bell and Reagan visited Minnesota Thursday as part of their campaign to establish the president as a spokesman for a return to basics in education and merit pay for teachers.
Bell's appearance here was not without paradox. He was almost invisible as a Cabinet member during the first two years of the Reagan administration, when his chief duty was supposed to be to abolish the Education Department.
Today, however, Bell was introduced by Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. as holding "the most important job next to the president's in the U.S.," and abolishing the department was not mentioned as an administration goal in the briefing book given to party leaders.
Bell portrayed education as an issue that will draw a clear ideological line between the two parties, with Democrats favoring more federal aid and Republicans supporting state and local action to toughen standards for teachers and students.
"The president is on the right side of these issues, because he is where the parents and the better school boards and the bill-paying businesses and working people are," he said.