ONE year after President Bush announced his 10-year America 2000 strategy to beef up the nation's schools, the self-proclaimed "education president" may be put to the test.
United States Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander confidently told reporters at a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday that "education will be a good symbol of the president's leadership," during this year's campaign.
But Mr. Bush's most formidable challenger, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, views the president's education record as a weakness to exploit during the campaign.
An educational reformer in his own state, Mr. Clinton charges the White House with lackluster leadership in fostering ways to learn more, teach better, and provide the poor and middle class with adequate educational opportunities.
When Bush called for an education summit of the governors of the 50 states in 1989, Clinton responded by canvassing the educational field for input and establishing state governors' priorities for education. Critics say Bush brought nothing to the summit.
Secretary Alexander contends that his department has been the "spark plug" for a radical change in the country's educational agenda. "The Democratic candidates by and large know that the president is doing what the president ought to do, and most of the Democrats across the country are involved with the president in changing the American educational system, including Governor Clinton," he says.
On April 18, 1991, the White House announced ways to revitalize the ailing American educational system. Over half of the 43 governors whose communities have adopted some of the so-called America 2000 measures are Democrats. With only a marginal amount of federal money (schools come under the purview of state and local jurisdictions, which provide roughly 94 percent of the financing), the administration set out to slowly convert schools across the country.
Initiatives included more rigorous curriculums, nationally-standardized testing, and teaching innovations. The admini- stration wants good teachers rewarded with higher pay and would allow parents to choose the schools their children attend.
When Bush launched the program, he admonished those who expect a better system not to rely too heavily on Washington's help: "What happens here in Washington won't matter half as much as what happens in each school, each local community, and yes, in each home."
Alexander says social norms have created problems endemic to communities around the country: "Parents are busy, televisions are on, homework's not checked, the community's not involved."
There are enormous obstacles to reform, he says: "Imagine you were a teacher, teaching six back-to-back subjects to kids, 20 percent of whom, outside of school, watch five hours of the most expensively-produced entertainment in the world." The only way to compete, he says, is to engage students with retrained, "entertaining teachers" who present an exciting curriculum.
Alexander insists America 2000 is making strides with progressive programs and cutting through tangled bureaucracy: "You go to New Hampshire, they're creating an America 2000 school, opening the school all year ... giving people a menu of opportunities. You go to Minnesota, you find a kindergarten in a bank, five new schools in a shopping mall, because that's where the parents are.
"You find a school in the Honeywell Corporate headquarters for teenage girls who are pregnant.... You go to Louisville, you find they've basically gotten rid of the central maintenance headquarters so it doesn't take six months and $3,500 to get six electrical outlets fixed and the principal can call down the street and get an electrician to come in and do it."
Bush appointed Alexander in January 1991 after the administration was accused of an uninspired education policy and lack of direction under Bush's first education secretary, Lauro Cavazos.
Alexander, a former Tennessee governor who focused the National Governors' Association (NGA) on educational issues during his tenure as chairman in 1986, is broadly credited with bringing a sense of purpose to the department.
His access to the president is greater than almost any other Cabinet official, says Alexander, and his frequent meetings with Bush are testimony to the president's commitment to educational issues.
However, among educational reformers, Bush still has many detractors. One of them is Michael Cohen, director of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, who worked with the NGA in 1989 and helped Clinton put together the joint NGA-White House statement on national education goals.
Mr. Cohen concedes that "appointing Lamar Alexander was a tremendous improvement over the former education secretary." But he faults Bush for "doing nothing to move ahead with educational reforms" from the time the president announced the six national goals in his 1990 inaugural address to January 1991, when he brought Alexander on board.
"If Bill Clinton had been president, there would be a continuing flow of activity," Cohen says. "That's the stark contrast between George Bush and Bill Clinton."