Departing Education Officials Pass Along Lessons

AT a "debriefing" session here last week, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and four other senior officials of the Department of Education participated in a frank review of their successes, frustrations, and failures.

The Education Commission of the States (ECS), a Denver-based policy organization, hosted the event to encourage continuity in the education-reform process.

"We know that all reform builds off of previous efforts, regardless of the political parties and individuals involved," said ECS President Frank Newman.

The outgoing officials decried the politics of education and spoke of gridlock resulting from pervasive partisanship. David Kearns, former chairman of Xerox and deputy secretary of education, said he was surprised by "the number of people who think winning and losing is more important than reforming education."

Mr. Kearns encouraged the new administration to seize a "tremendous opportunity" by using the personnel and expertise of the shrinking military to strengthen the teaching ranks.

Several of the education officials spoke about their initial disagreement with the Bush administration's school-choice plan. The "GI Bill for Children" would have given low- and middle-income families $1,000 to use at any public or private school.

Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said she had written an article against private-school choice before taking office.

"I came to change my view in a year and a half," she said. "It's wrong to force children to go to bad schools."

Carolynn Reid-Wallace, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, acknowledged that she was another convert to the choice plan.

"I really was antichoice until after I came to understand what was being proposed," she said. "We didn't do as well as we ought to have in explaining this `GI Bill' to the public."

Secretary Alexander agreed that the public simply didn't understand the administration's proposal, particularly its emphasis on low- and middle-income families.

When asked what surprised him during the course of his work, Alexander said: "I really thought I knew this country; I did not." He spoke of such eye-opening experiences as watching gangs of youth gather after school in East Los Angeles, discovering that middle-school students were being charged with murder, and seeing schools where more than half of the children could not speak English.

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