Alexander Moves to Revamp Education
New secretary to launch aggressive agenda for US schools
WASHINGTON — LATE this week, probably Thursday, President Bush and his new secretary of education, Lamar Alexander, will announce an aggressive new agenda for American schools. The initiative will mark the official launch of a long-awaited effort by the president to make good on his 1988 campaign pledge to be "education president."
Secretary Alexander's program will not divert major new streams of federal dollars into education.
But White House aides appear convinced that education is going to be the primary focus of the Bush presidency, at least in domestic affairs.
One sign is the departure of the White House Cabinet affairs director, Stephen Danzansky, to become Mr. Alexander's chief of staff.
The new agenda will promote national testing to better measure and compare schools. It will also seek to promote the competition of the market by enabling parents to choose which schools their children attend.
The gist of these efforts is to bring an accountability for results to bear on the running of schools.
Neither parental choice nor national testing is new to White House speeches and policy statements. But so far this agenda has been mostly invisible and more vague than the lengthy action plan put together by Alexander.
Alexander has hit the ground running.
He has replaced top Education Department officials with his own high-powered team, led by his new deputy, former Xerox chairman David Kearns.
He has put one recent controversy quickly to rest by deciding that federal scholarships can continue to favor applicants from racial minority groups.
He has grabbed hold of the high-voltage debate on multiculturalism and diversity on college campuses.
He has delayed reauthorization of a college accrediting board until his department can study the board's use of racial quotas and diversity requirements in accrediting colleges and universities.
He has also begun promoting parental choice, or what used to be called vouchers. In most school districts today, students are assigned a school according to where they live. The option is usually to pay tuition at a private school.
Choice means that students and their parents can choose a school, either in the public system or a private school, and tax dollars will follow them, offsetting their tuition.
"In America, choice improves competition," Alexander said in a news conference Friday.
Choice has been a favorite slogan of the Bush administration, but the administration has not found a very powerful way to promote it.
Choice has some powerful enemies in Congress and among education professionals. And the federal role in education is small, well under 10 percent of most school district budgets.
Alexander appears to be doing an end run on the entrenched resistance. His initiatives this week will include opening a competition to award research and development contracts for designing new kinds of schools to organizations or businesses.
The Department of Education could sponsor only a handful of such schools nationally. But if they worked, they could help bring radically different kinds of organizations into the education business - "corporations, or even museums," Alexander has been saying.
"It may be a way for him to be involved with the choice issue without taking on a lot of church-state issues," says Denis Doyle of the Hudson Institute, who has consulted with the new education leadership.
Alexander, who was governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987, is not new to these concerns. He was a leading governor on education reform during the 1980s and focused on education as chairman of the National Governors Association in 1986.
In Tennessee, Alexander introduced a system of incentive pay and career ladders for both teachers and administrators. In the seven years since then, teachers have become better paid, but the evaluation process that was to hold them accountable has been "trivialized," says Willis Holly, a professor of education and political science at Vanderbilt University. Much of the peer review has been dropped for more formulaic assessments.
Alexander also launched the most extensive study of class size ever undertaken. Tennessee is now drastically shrinking classes in its primary grades as a result.
A governor can shape education much more directly than the federal government can. Alexander may need to lead through agenda-setting and directing federal research.
His style is likely to be much less abrasive than the last attention-getting education secretary, William Bennett.
"He could say the same thing in content as Bennett and leave the audience feeling good instead of furious," says Mr. Doyle.
The deputy secretary of education, David Kearns, who wrote a book on education with Doyle, is likely to take over much of the administration of the education department. Mr. Kearns is also "an incredible salesman," says Doyle.