Published Online: March 19, 1997

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Goodbye, pony express?

When it comes to education, one former U.S. secretary envisions a system where teachers are paid up to $100,000 a year based on performance, the federal government hands its reins to states, and students attend any school they choose.

Lamar Alexander recently told the House Education Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that he would like to "recharter and replace every public school" in the next 15 years and eliminate the federal role. In his words, replace the pony express with the telegraph system.

Mr. Alexander, in seeking the Republican nomination for president last year, revived what he called his GI Bill for Kids that he pushed as President Bush's education secretary. That plan featured a school voucher proposal.

Mr. Alexander now says he looks to the nation's higher education system for inspiration on how to reform the public schools. He wants elementary and secondary schools to compete for students in the same way that colleges and universities do.

"We should take all the money we spend on elementary and secondary education and let parents choose a school for their children," he told the panel at its hearing.

Mr. Alexander's biggest proposal is a "GI Scholarship" plan to allow middle and low-income students to attend any school they choose. The federal, state, and local allocation would follow a child to his chosen school, and public schools would take on a new meaning.

Mr. Alexander peppered his remarks with plenty of criticism for President Clinton's initiatives, saying the president is in the right church on the issue but in the wrong pew when it comes to programs.

Not surprisingly, his comments did not sit well with House Democrats, who at times vastly outnumbered the two Republicans in attendance.

Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., a fellow Tennessean, urged Mr. Alexander to rethink his ideas. "I don't buy the notion that kids in public schools can't learn," Rep. Ford said.

Without a dominant leader, it's "a very interesting time to be a Republican," Mr. Alexander told reporters after the hearing. Moreover, he wants the party to shape up its message when it comes to education. "We've gone from saying we're against everything to mindlessly saying we're for it," he said.

But he stopped short of saying he'll again don his red-flannel shirt and hit the campaign trail.

--JOETTA L. SACK federal@epe.org

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