Bush Education Boss Looks Ahead

Secretary Lamar Alexander says a run for the White House in 1996 may be on his agenda

ASSESSING his tenure as secretary of education, Lamar Alexander says he would "go right down the same tracks but with a bigger megaphone."

The former governor of Tennessee joined President Bush's team midterm and infused new energy into a lackluster department. He characterizes his efforts as a "crusade" to help Americans take charge of their schools. The centerpiece of that crusade was an unsuccessful plan to allow low- and middle-income parents to use tax dollars for private education.

Although that effort stalled, Secretary Alexander helped initiate a strategy for meeting the six national education goals drafted by Bush and the 50 governors in 1989. He promoted "break-the-mold" schools and began developing national standards.

Sitting in one of several rocking chairs in his office, Alexander spoke with the Monitor last week about his work as secretary of education and his future plans.

Word has it that we may see you running for president in 1996.

You might very well. I'm going home, which is what someone who loses in an election ought to do.... I'm going to practice law, which is what I did 15 years ago before I ran for governor. I'm going to write a book about what I've learned. And then I'm going to help the Republican Party get back on track so that it can win elections in 1994 and 1996. And I may very well run for the presidency myself in 1996.

Why would you want to be president?

The reason anyone ought to run for president is to help the country understand itself and to realize its potential. I've been to 100-plus communities in the last 18 months, California 20 times. And I've got a picture of this country that I didn't have before. The country is filled with anxious people who would like some help understanding what's going on and what we ought to do.... Our party - the Republican Party - has been talking in the language of 1964 or 1980 and not in the language of the '90s. Par ties, when they do that, get ushered out to refresh themselves, which is what's happened to us.

Can you give us a preview of the book you will write?

I'm still thinking about that. Education books have a way of turning quickly boring even though education is the national worry, and it's the solution to most of the things that are on the front pages today.... I think the theme of it will be what I've learned about the country when I've gone into the schools because the schools are almost a perfect thermometer of what a community is like at that moment. And ... the schools give a good picture of what America will be like in the year 2000.

Do you think President Bush lived up to his own mandate to be the "Education President?"

I do. I think that when the dust settles and the history books are written, the president's contribution to education will be one of his most significant contributions. And it will be one of his most lasting, because most everything he did was in partnership with the nation's governors.... We've tried hard to be bipartisan and broad-based in what we're doing. The president has, and because of that I think his contributions will continue....

People are still looking for Washington-style leadership on issues like education: Pass a program, spend some money, and go on to the next thing. Nothing like that will ever work in helping create the best schools.

You decided to take on the education establishment by pushing private-school choice. But you clearly understand that it is the establishment - teachers and administrators - who must ultimately create change.

It's a difficult choice. And it made our job much harder. We were caught in the odd position of having energized the education community against us with a proposal that was so ahead of the curve that most of the general population hadn't yet accepted it. But the only alternative is to let the schools continue to fail and the children to continue to have a sub-par education....

We're trying to create the competitive forces that will help save schools, not for the schools' sake but for the children's sake. Already whole school systems are changing to offer public-school choice. They never would have done it if the president hadn't pushed choice of all schools....

So what do you expect to happen now that there is a more pro-establishment administration coming in?

Well, I don't think the schools will change as rapidly.... I think Bill and Hillary Clinton and [incoming Secretary of Education] Dick Riley all care very much about schools and children. But I think they are more likely to be content with just moving the establishment as far as the establishment is willing to go....

As I look down the road, I think what will happen is that the argument for break-the-mold schools and giving families choices will move to the states.

Your critics say that you didn't spend much time on Capitol Hill lobbying for the president's education agenda.

I was there quite a bit. I just had an audience that was hard to persuade.... We would have succeeded if we had stayed longer, but we were interrupted. I was only here 22 months.

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