EDUCATION Secretary Lamar Alexander began his first week in office on a deliberately low key, underplaying any contrast with his predecessor. Yet there is an upbeat sense of bipartisan expectation among education department officials and in the education community that the former Tennessee governor is bringing the vision, and political savvy, that has been missing in President Bush's number one domestic policy area.
Mr. Bush took office promising to be the "education president," but rankings consistently showed his education secretary of the past two years, Lauro Cavazos, as his least effective cabinet member. Mr. Cavazos, who failed even to lobby his own Republican party on Capitol Hill to support Bush's education proposals, was forced to resign in December.
Major changes expected
"Things are going to get a whole lot better now," says Mike Cohen, executive director of the National Center on Education and the Economy. "The department will be able to provide the leadership it hasn't."
"The end of the war, expectations of changes in domestic issues and education being one of the most important domestic issues," constitute a confluence of factors that are building expectations of major change under Mr. Alexander, says Susan Fuhrman, director of the Rutgers University Center for Policy Research and Education. Education experts expect strong early positions from Alexander on such favorite conservative policies as allowing parents a choice in where their children go to school, national ed ucation standards to help uniformly gauge education progress and to hold schools accountable for what children should learn, and asking for less money for federal programs.
The national goals for education issued at Bush's historic 1989 education summit of state governors set the lofty agenda for Alexander. Goals set for the year 2000 include: making the United States first in the world in math and science; raising the high school graduation rate to 90 percent; assuring that every adult is literate.
"I think the most important accomplishment [of the administration] so far is the national goals which are really historic and generally underestimated," Alexander told reporters on his first day on the job this week.
However, he holds his strategy to achieve those goals close to the vest, saying he is waiting for marching orders from Bush, who has discussed education with him in three meetings during the height of the Gulf war.
No matter how unsettled his policy is, he looked to be fairly settled into his office March 18; Family pictures hung, it was already furnished with two Tennessee rocking chairs and his collection of walking sticks picked up along his 1978 gubernatorial campaign walk from one end of the state to the other.
Alexander's politics were honed on education issues: He pushed through extensive education reforms of the Tennessee system and engineered the National Governors' Association's move to center stage in national education reform in the late 1980s.
So he does have well-defined thinking on education, which he outlined for reporters.
"Some people get the idea that an education policy is a federally funded program, and that an education strategy is accomplished by sending a few programs up to the Hill and debating about their price tag. And that won't transform American education," he says.
Alexander backs choice
His strongest held opinion seems to be in the area of submitting schools to market economics.
"It's hard for me to see why choice even should be an issue. 201&gt; I can't imagine how we ever drifted into requiring parents to send their kids to particular schools," he says. "From me, and I assume from the president, you can expect to hear us arguing that any environment in which we hope to improve kindergarten through the 12th grade must include choice."
He even suggests that to broaden the array of choice, museums and firms such as Xerox, IBM, and Burger King might be allowed to operate public schools in a free-market competition for public education funding.
Alexander says the first policy he will take up will be the administration's position on minority scholarships. He was drawn into his first dispute with Congress this week as he tried to postpone testimony on the subject scheduled for March 20 while he begins a review of the policy.
Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Williams was supposed to testify about his controversial warning of Fiesta Bowl officials in December that they would violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act if they offered race-specific scholarships.