Since taking over in February, Education Secretary William J. Bennett has gained a reputation for making unusually blunt remarks that land him on the front page and draw fire from the professional education lobby. It happened again last week, in what was supposed to be a carefully arranged photo opportunity and a "tribute to the art of teaching."
The place was Concord, N.H., the next-to-last stop on an eight-city swing in which he played the role of substitute teacher in high schools, junior highs and elementary schools. Bennett stopped at Concord High School to fill in for teacher Christa McAuliffe, who is in Houston training to be the first teacher in space.
At a news conference after his class session, Bennett spoke about teacher pay and said there's "not a thing" the federal government should do about low salaries. "Proud schools," he contended, don't have teacher shortages.
His comments -- and the angry response they drew from school officials -- were reported in a front-page story in the Sept. 12 Boston Globe.
When asked about teacher shortages, Bennett replied, "You will find that in schools that are proud, schools that are good, you will find people lined up for teaching jobs, and this is a fact of life. Successful schools and effective schools have lots of people who want to come and teach."
Those words were particularly stinging in New Hampshire, which is experiencing a severe teacher shortage and which has some of the lowest teachers' salaries in the nation. Bennett's words drew a sharp response from the principal of Concord High, from the local teachers' union and the National Education Association.
"Our teachers were horrified at his words," said Marilyn Monahan, president of the New Hampshire branch of the National Education Association. "I think it showed a lack of sensitivity and understanding as to where New Hampshire ranks in teacher salaries."
"We have many proud schools in New Hampshire that are having trouble finding teachers," she said.
NEA Vice President Keith Geiger added that Bennett was correct when he said that good schools can attract the best teachers. But he said the secretary was making "a smart-aleck remark that has nothing to do with the question" of severe teacher shortages. Geiger cited a recent Louis Harris poll predicting that a million new teachers would have to be found within the next decade because so many teachers want to leave the profession, principally because of the low pay.
MORE ON AID TO PAROCHIAL SCHOOLS . . . Bennett has had another problem recently with how his words have played in public. The issue this time was the July Supreme Court decision prohibiting the use of federal money under the so-called Chapter I program to pay public school teachers to teach in parochial school classrooms.
The problem arose over his speech to the Knights of Columbus meeting here Aug. 7, when the secretary promised: "We at the Department of Education will do our best to nullify the damage done by the Felton decision to the education of needy children. We will work with local school authorities to devise other means to provide services . . . ."
In a subsequent letter, Bennett told the chief state school officers to comply with the high court's order, but he added that the department would consider supporting any local school districts that want to go to court to avoid compliance.
After those statements, Bennett was dogged by questions about why he was trying to get around the Supreme Court's ruling -- something he said he never really intended. For example, in a televised interview on the Cable News Network show "Newsmaker Sunday," questioner Jim Miklaszewski asked: "You are going to try to circumvent that [court ruling] somehow for this coming school year, are you not?"
That confusion -- and some other unsettled matters -- forced Bennett to send another letter to the chief state school officers, telling them that any support in court suits "in no way represents an attempt to evade the law."
An aide acknowledged that in his earlier comments, Bennett may not have put the message across forcefully enough that school officials must comply with the law.
In his second letter, Bennett said that the local districts "must take every diligent effort to comply with the court's decision as soon as possible."