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Quality of public education in US looms as key issue in '84 race

Education - rocket engine of the American dream - has been irrecoverably launched as a major issue for the 1984 campaign. President Reagan is off to Minneapolis and to Albuquerque, N.M., for major speeches this month before parent and teacher groups. Democratic rivals continue to attack Mr. Reagan's record on education issues, linking American progress and world clout to a strong public school system, much as Reagan in 1980 keyed America's global status to its military strength.

Four of eight major education studies have been issued this spring, with the rest to be made public by fall. The powerful teacher groups hold their annual meetings at the end of June - the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Los Angeles, the National Education Association in Philadelphia. Public education reform is expected to dominate their agendas.

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The visibility of the education debate will be increased yet again - by a congressional proposal this week to hold ''a national summit conference'' on education.

Beneath this surface attention to the nation's schools lie important political forces. A primer on the politics of education would include:

* Education is central to a cluster of American values that have seemed threatened by the recession, economic competition from abroad, and social change. In a recent ABC/Washington Post survey, for example, only 3 percent of the public singled out ''a good education for myself and my children'' as their major life goal. But related to education were other key hopes - ''financial security'' (36 percent), ''to lead the good life'' (21 percent), ''satisfying job for myself and my children'' (13 percent), and ''the American Dream of a happy marriage, my own home, and children'' (11 percent). In other words, education has become a political vehicle for touching these elemental public aspirations.

* Americans are more concerned about their schools than down on them. Yet there is considerable anger, an undercurrent that ranges from concern about drugs and vandalism to the fear of inducing wrong values and teaching irrelevant subjects. A California Poll survey last August, for example, showed that the proportion of that state's citizens favoring more spending for schools had climbed from 43 percent in 1977 to 53 percent. An April CBS/New York Times poll found 81 percent of the public willing to spend more in taxes for schools. Two-thirds of the Californians (65 percent) thought the schools were not paying enough attention to reading, writing, arithmetic - the basics.

* In strictly partisan terms, the politics of education involves its own sets of players and forces. The major teacher groups have supported Democrats in the past. They are likely to support Democrats in the future. The AFT at its Los Angeles meeting will conduct a straw poll of members for an assessment of which Democratic primary candidate would compete best against Reagan. Reagan himself had built his 1980 campaign partly on issues like school prayer and tuition tax credits, which put him in tune with the Moral Majority and Southern and many Roman Catholic private school advocates.

Reagan's vow to abolish the Department of Education, established by President Carter, has apparently been abandoned as education issues in Washington have moved to the fore. But again, Reagan's dislike of the department reflects his conviction that education should remain a local, not federal, responsibility.

Educators seem to feel that Reagan, in advocating merit pay and tougher school graduation requirements - part of an ''agenda for excellence'' under preparation by Education Secretary T. H. Bell - is at least partly rebuffing his political antagonists in education.

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The women's vote also figures into Washington's thinking on education.

''Women tend to be more concerned with the welfare of the next generation and how they're brought up,'' says Donald Faree, a Roper Center opinion analyst. ''It is similar to their concerns about nuclear power and warfare.''

Reagan aides say his major emphasis on education matters this month is keyed to overcoming his weakness among women voters. Reagan will speak to women educators in San Francisco at the end of the month.

''Historically, education has never been a major political issue at the national level,'' says Stuart E. Eizenstat, Mr. Carter's chief domestic adviser. The first higher-education bill, the National Defense Education Act in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration, was passed in the context of defense needs.

The first major secondary and elementary bill, ''Title I,'' was passed in 1965 and called for compensatory education for the disadvantaged. More recently the ''Pell grant'' bill was passed providing grant, loan, and work-study programs for poor students.

''President Carter created the Department of Education,'' Mr. Eizenstat says, ''because he felt at the Cabinet table education was never discussed. It was in effect buried within HEW.''

''We'd be better off spending less on transfer programs and more on human capital programs where you invest in people,'' Eizenstat says. ''Transfer payments or human support helps people keep their heads above water. But investment in education gives a lifetime return - in a more able, productive worker, who will buy more goods, pay more taxes, and enable the US to compete better in world markets.''

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