In a telling personal account of the inner workings of the Reagan Cabinet, former education secretary T.H. Bell says the administration suffered from a "contradictory and inconsistent" education policy during President Reagan's first term because "movement conservatives" were trying to impose "radical and off-the-wall ideas" on the Education Department.

In the March issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Bell tells of constant battle against a well-organized network on the far right -- identifiable by their Adam Smith neckties -- who "enjoyed . . . extraordinary privileges and automatic forgiveness" from the White House.

According to Bell, who served throughout Reagan's first term, the "movement conservatives" had as their goal the abolition of every federal education program, including aid to the handicapped, civil rights enforcement and student financial aid. They sometimes succeeded, Bell says, because Reagan never clearly defined his own views on education.

With Reagan refusing to step into the fray, Bell says, the far-right extremists were able to take the president's words and speeches and "carry them to the lunatic fringes of ideological political thought."

"Throughout four years of acrimonious debate, I never succeeded in gaining a clearly stated definition of the Reagan administration policy concerning the federal role," Bell writes. "Each question had to be settled without the guidance of a written policy, and policy was formulated in an ad hoc manner. All statements were challenged by contending factions, and each issue was destined to be settled at the last possible moment.

"As I worked in the Cabinet for four long, tumultuous years," Bell writes, "I learned that Ronald Reagan apparently believed that he could get the best thinking from his Cabinet and senior staff members if he allowed a few debates and verbal brawls to discipline their thinking."

As an example of the inconsistency that plagued education policy, Bell cites bilingual education. Initially, the White House moved to withdraw bilingual education regulations in order to scale back the program. Bell says he was surprised to hear Reagan, campaigning for reelection in 1984, assure Hispanics in Texas that he would support continued funding for bilingual education.

Bell's seven-page article offers new details and interesting insights into the battle over Reagan's 1980 campaign pledge to dismantle the Education Department. Bell took office supporting the plan to replace the department with a grant-making foundation like the National Science Foundation, but believing that existing programs should be preserved through a combination of foundation grants and services administered by other federal agencies. The plan fell apart, Bell says, because staunch White House conservatives -- led by Edwin Meese III, now attorney general -- wanted only a small foundation that would severely cut back existing programs.

The issue simmered until the 1983 release of the widely acclaimed "Nation at Risk" report made education a popular issue. Republicans at the 1984 presidential convention, fearful of being branded anti-education, beat back an attempt to draft a platform plank calling for the department's abolition.

Bell's article makes no mention of his successor, William J. Bennett, who has lent a more sympathetic ear to the far right and quietly advocates phasing out the department.

Since leaving government, Bell has been a professor of education administration at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He has spoken out for merit pay for teachers and higher teacher salaries across the board, but this is his first account of what insiders have long believed was a tiring four-year battle with New Right conservatives.

The article is all the more startling because Bell is a quiet, unassuming public speaker prone to understatement and has a reputation for conciliation. In the article, he refers to his opponents on the right in such scathing terms as "zealots," saying their ultimate goal was the destruction of public education and its replacement with a marketplace system of private schools run by entrepreneurs.

"A certain lack of intellectual maturity on the part of many leaders in the movement smacks of something akin to McCarthyism," Bell writes.

He also differentiates the "movement conservatives" from traditional Republican conservatives such as himself who "are not fully admitted to the movement's inner-circles."

"Many Republicans are frightened by the uncompromising viciousness of this movement," he writes. "This, of course, enhanced the power of the movement's leaders and strengthened their stranglehold on the Republican party."

In the end, Bell writes, the far right's zealousness convinced him of the need to retain the Education Department as a buffer against "lunatic" demands. "My four years in the Reagan cabinet," he writes, "taught me the importance of insuring that education is represented by a seat at the Cabinet table."