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A tradition to be preserved

Terrel Bell, the President-elect's choice for secretary of education, will come to office at a time of profound problems within the American system of education. Not least of these is a deterioration of the public schools. Before him will stand, among others, the challenging question: Is the United States government prepared to support a strong, efficient, free public school system as the indispensable foundation of a democratic, representative society? Or, frustrated by the multitude of problems plaguing the elementary and secondary public schools, will it join the movement of those urging the use of public monies to aid private, including church- related, schools?

We believe strongly it must opt for the former.

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Ronald Reagan's position is clear. The President-elect has long supported a voucher plan or tuition tax-credit bill "so that parents of children attending nonpublic schools will be better able to fulfill their obligation to make certain that children get the kind of education parents want." The obvious concern is that youngsters be given that educational and moral training parents deem best. Mr. Bell, a Mormon, is also said to believe that parents' wishes should take precedence in the education process.

No one can quarrel with the right of parents to send their children to private schools. That is a free choice. But should they then be allowed to withhold their support of the public school system? We think not. Beside the constitutional question of separation of church and state raised by the use of public funds for religious-oriented schools, lies the broad moral issue of a society's collective responsibility for bringing up its citizenry. Many public schools already are in deep financial trouble. If the more affluent members of society not only elect to send their children to private schools but are permitted to deduct the expenses of these from tax obligations, the free school system could face disaster.

Far-reaching implications will have to be carefully thought through by the new administration. What happens to the strength and character of society when it becomes stratified? The public schools -- in which the vast majority of children are enrolled -- have traditionally been a kind of glue helping to unify disparate economic, religious, and other segments of society. What if the public schools become largely the repository for the new non-English-speaking (mainly Hispanic) immigrants coming into the US in larger and larger numbers? Or if they are too weak and poor to serve these newcomers? How, then, will the immigrant children be brought into the American mainstream? Social critics already warn of the dangers of a growing fragmentation of US society.

One could go on with other arguments -- the risk of creating a costly bureaucracy and of government control if a voucher program were instituted, for example. But the point we would stress today is that the new administration would be wise to approach the public- school as well as other burning educational issues with a lack of preconceptions. The whole field needs fresh thinking with a view to the nation's long-range needs. We find it hard to resist the argument that, instead of helping to emasculate the public schools -- admittedly often beset by violence, truancy, poor teaching, and other problems -- the federal government should be seeking ways to help states reverse these destructive trends and to make the public schools the solid centers of learning they should be, even if more and more children choose to attend private institutions.

In this connection Mr. Bell was sensible to withhold judgment also on the new Department of Education. Mr. Reagan favors abolishing it. From the start we, too, opposed its formation, and we continue to believe that the federal stress ought to be on prodding the states to live up to theirm constitutional obligations. It is not Washington but the 50 individual states that bear the responsibility for education. Yet dismantling the department now, and perhaps setting up an independent "agency," might be perceived as a downgrading of education at the very time it needs to be enhanced in the public consciousness. A thoughful look is in order before s till another organizational change.

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