Education Secretary T. H. Bell, an increasingly potent political voice in the Reagan administration, said yesterday that academically talented minority students from poor families have gotten a "raw deal" in the nation's public schools and that the federal government "is not doing anything of significance about it."
Bell said that key federal aid programs have resulted in dramatic academic gains by some poor students, but that overall the public schools have failed high-achievers from low-income families, particularly minorities.
"We have no program for them," Bell said during an interview with The Washington Post. "There is no state program. There is no political constituency for them."
By 1990, minorities--both native and foreign-born--will comprise the majority of public school students in many cities and states, according to educators. This demographic shift is already visible in school districts in the Washington metropolitan area.
Bell's remarks capped a two-week period in which the Reagan administration openly stepped up its campaign to woo ethnic voters to the Republican party prior to the 1984 presidential election.
President Reagan, who has attempted to cut key school programs for the poor, has seized on education in recent months as a prime political issue. Bell has served as his point man.
Bell yesterday blamed the "residual harm" of racial discrimination--particularly housing patterns that have segregated Americans by class and race--for what he believes is the nation's dismal record at educating talented low-income students.
"Low-income areas and low-income neighborhoods and low-income schools still provide inferior learning opportunities," Bell said.
"Since most low-income people are minorities, it tends to work against low-income minority kids. The kid who loses the most is the achiever, who can't rub shoulders with intellectual peers.
"When you live in poverty and everybody around you is living in the same blighted environment, it's hard to have an upbeat, can-do attitude."
In keeping with a favorite Reagan political theme, Bell also blamed a shortage of bright, motivated teachers for the lack of educational opportunities for the poor.
But he modified the president's emphatic endorsement of merit pay for teachers--which has drawn widespread criticism from the nation's powerful teachers' unions--as a way of recruiting better candidates to the profession.
Bell proposed yesterday that elementary and secondary teachers be promoted in the same way as college teachers, who are elevated through different ranks after being judged by a committee of faculty peers.
Under the classic scheme for merit pay, principals decide which teachers deserve salary increases based on classroom performance.
The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have opposed this concept because they say principals can reward teachers who are personal favorites rather than those who have performed well. Further, they say the raises that have been proposed are too small to create any incentive.
Bell said the peer-review system would provide "a democratic element" that should be more palatable to teachers' groups. Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander has proposed a merit pay system that includes several stages of career advancement and a peer review system.
"I haven't been able to get this concept across, but until we do have some form of merit pay , the bright young people will not choose teaching," Bell said.
Scott Widmeyer, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said "It sounds like he is on the right track."