Secretary of Education T.H. Bell, who campaigned for tougher school standards while running a department his boss had pledged to abolish, yesterday became the first Cabinet member to resign after President Reagan's landslide reelection.
But Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr., whom many had expected to leave in Reagan's second term, said yesterday that he has talked to the president and will remain on the job. Bell, who is returning to the University of Utah as a professor, told a news conference that the country is "involved in a real renaissance of American education. It's been a joy to be a part of that."
Bell's departure is likely to be welcomed by conservative Republicans, who often regarded the secretary as an obstacle to efforts to dismantle the department, take the government out of education research and slash federal aid to local school programs.
While he did not go as far as the conservatives wanted, Bell did carry to Congress Reagan's requests for sharp cutbacks in such areas as student loans and aid to schools in impoverished areas. Bell's resignation, while not a surprise, is expected to touch off a scramble for his job.
William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), is now the conservatives' first choice to replace Bell, according to one Education Department official in contact with such conservative groups as the Heritage Foundation.
At the endowment, Bennett has pushed for traditional education and mastery of subjects and has tried to eliminate funding of projects he believed to be political. He sharply chastised the Wisconsin state humanities council, which received NEH support, for funding a documentary on Nicaragua that appeared sympathetic to the Sandinista government.
Other candidates to replace Bell are Boston University President John Silber, who is regarded as a tough administrator, and Donald J. Devine, head of the Office of Personnel Management.
Some Republicans' suspicions of Bell deepened when two of his most conservative subordinates were ousted. Robert Sweet, who briefly headed the National Institute of Education, had tried to make key personnel appointments without Bell's approval, while former general counsel Daniel Oliver wrote a major legal opinion that eroded Bell's authority.
Bell, a teacher who often appeared caught between the education establishment and administration budget-cutters, sometimes became a public whipping boy for trying to steer a middle course. But he will be best remembered for touching off a national debate on declining school standards, an issue that Reagan turned to his political advantage.
Bell's moment came after the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which he created, issued a report in April 1983 that warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in American public schools.
Now that Reagan's 1980 goal of eliminating the department has been dropped, no clear agenda awaits Bell's successor. Department officials said the push for tuition tax credits, which was defeated in Congress last year, probably will be put back in the forefront.
"Those who anticipate there will be major initiatives which require massive funding are going to be disappointed," Bell said yesterday. "I also predict those who may anticipate a reversal of policies will also be disappointed."
Pierce, like Bell, at times appeared weary of four years of battles, in his case with civil rights, congressional and urban leaders unhappy over housing and urban aid cutbacks. But the former New York lawyer said yesterday that his recent comments about the possibility of returning to private life had been misinterpreted.
Pierce, the only black in the Cabinet, said that when he called White House chief of staff James A. Baker III this week to clarify the situation, Reagan came on the line and asked him to remain at HUD.
Pierce said he would step up his efforts for such initiatives as creation of low-tax urban enterprise zones during the early months of 1985, when administration influence in Congress is expected to be at its peak.
"I think we're going to get enterprise zones," Pierce said. "I'd like to push that right away. I think we have enough power on the Hill now to get it," despite opposition from the House Democratic leadership.
Winning approval for stalled measures to strengthen fair housing laws "is going to be tougher," Pierce said. He said he also would try to expand an experimental program of housing vouchers for the poor.
It is not clear whether the Cabinet lineup will change further. Reagan has said he "would not be surprised" if others leave the Cabinet, but that he is not unhappy with anyone's performance.
Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan will remain on leave while he fights an indictment charging him and others with fraud on a New York subway construction contract. Attorney General William French Smith plans to resign when his designated successor, White House counselor Edwin Meese III, is confirmed by the Senate.