Former Education Chief Wonders Why Reagan Chose Him : Bell Tells of Battle With ‘Lunatic Fringe’ Ideas

Associated Press

Former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell depicts his four years in the Reagan Cabinet as a time of unrelenting struggle against ultraconservatives in the Administration with “lunatic fringe” ideas.

Bell claims his critics on the radical right--both inside the White House and outside the Administration--distorted President Reagan’s views about education and sought to undermine America’s system of public schools.

Bell, writing in the March issue of Phi Delta Kappan, an education magazine, praises Reagan as “a man of strength, convictions and courage.” But he said the Administration never enunciated a clear federal policy on education and “our actions were at times contradictory and inconsistent.”

Bell resigned from the Cabinet in December, 1984, and became a professor of educational administration at the University of Utah.


He was an object of conservatives’ wrath from the day Reagan named him in January, 1981. “To this day, I’m not certain why I was selected by the President, especially in view of the fact that I had once testified favorably on the bill that created the Department of Education,” Bell writes.

Dismantling the Department of Education, which the Carter Administration and Congress created in 1979, was high on Reagan’s list of campaign promises. Bell came up with a plan to downgrade it to a foundation like the National Science Foundation, but Congress barely gave that proposal a glance.

Bell had far more success in helping ignite a national debate about slipshod standards in U.S. schools. During his first year he appointed the National Commission on Excellence in Education. In April, 1983, the advisory panel released a bombshell: a pithy, polemical report called “A Nation At Risk” that decried the “rising tide of mediocrity” in U.S. schools.

Bell said that report helped turn the tide in his own intramural battles. Reagan “gave 51 major speeches on education” in the 18 months before the 1984 elections.


Bell said Reagan wanted to cut federal spending and strengthen state and local control of education, but not to abandon all federal help for the disadvantaged, the handicapped and college students.

“During my tenure as secretary, however, proponents of the doctrines of the extreme right advanced many far-reaching and, in my view, radical and off-the-wall ideas that did not fit under the . . . major goals of the President and, indeed, did not even have his support,” the former education secretary said.

“They took his guiding principles and carried them to the lunatic fringes of ideological political thought. These zealots blamed me for many policy proposals that were actually the President’s.”

He wrote that these “movement conservatives . . . even have their own symbols, such arcana as neckties bearing the likeness of Adam Smith and other items of ornamentation that identify them as true patriots and faithful revolutionaries.”