President Reagan, pressing ahead with his effort to capitalize on education as a political issue, declared today that American schools have become "too easy" because of "the abandonment of compulsory courses."
At the outset of a two-day campaign-style swing devoted to increasing his claim on education issues, Reagan told a forum of educators in a high school gym here that his own generation is partly to blame for the "sorry state" of American schools.
Reagan said that it was "generations like my own" that sought after the Great Depression and World War II to improve life for their children but added "maybe we made it too easy."
He said, "I question the abandonment of compulsory courses" and asserted that students who don't take courses such as math and science are "not going to get the exposure they should to all the other choices that are out there."
The president hit this back-to-basics theme as one part of an effort to broaden his position on education issues beyond tuition tax credits and voluntary school prayer. Reagan did not mention tuition tax credits today, but in response to a question he repeated his belief in voluntary school prayer.
From here he flew to Albuquerque, where he is to address the 87th annual convention of the Parent Teacher Association on Wednesday.
He appeared here at the elbow of Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (R), who sought without success this year to win his state legislature's approval for a "master teacher" plan to reward distinguished school teachers with extra pay. The president, who mostly listened during an education forum at the Farragut High School, endorsed Alexander's effort.
"If we want to achieve excellence, we must reward it," Reagan said, suggesting that there are parallels in other professions.
At the high school Reagan also lunched with teachers and dropped in on a senior English summer-school class studying Shakespeare's Macbeth. After reading a passage from the point in the play where Macbeth reacts to receiving word that Lady Macbeth has died, the president urged the students not to get "that pessimistic or that cynical about life."
His appearances were carefully crafted for television. The White House is anticipating that education will become an important issue in the 1984 campaign, and Reagan is hoping to use education to reinforce the idea that he is committed to traditional values.
The Democratic presidential candidates also are focusing on education, attempting to highlight the cuts Reagan has overseen in federal aid to schools. Reagan also made no mention of that subject today.
Stressing the importance of compulsory courses, Reagan said that he doubts whether students should be permitted, or are qualified, to choose what they study.
Reaching back to his own experience, Reagan recalled that he was "forced" to take a science class. "It didn't appeal to me at all, but I was forced to take it. And at the end of the year, it had not appealed to me at all.
"But," the president added, "I guess I learned a little something in exercising my mind . . . I had to do it, if I wanted to play on the football team and if I wanted to get a diploma some day."
Reagan noted that the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education has stressed renewing the emphasis on basics, including three to four years in math, science and English. These things "once used to be taken for granted in school," he said.
The president also repeated his contention that the federal government should have a smaller role in education, but he did not repeat his 1980 campaign pledge to abolish the Department of Education. Reagan said some "elements in our country" have thought of education as a "nationalized school system, if you will," but he added, "I am unalterably opposed."
Alexander's master teacher proposal, which would be financed by adding a penny to the state sales tax, would pay bonuses to as many as 30,000 of the state's 40,000 teachers. It would award the most distinguished teachers--master teachers--with an additional $7,000 a year in merit pay and pay bonuses of $2,000 to $4,000 for qualified "senior teachers."
Teachers would be recommended for the awards by master teachers or principals from other school districts. But the plan was shelved in the state senate because of opposition from the Tennessee Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. Those groups argue that all teachers' salaries should be increased and that the evaluations might be biased by favoritism.