Alexander Wastes No Time Making Office His Own

By Julie A. Miller — March 27, 1991 6 min read
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The state officials he addressed last week gave him a standing ovation before he even said a word.

In a flurry of appearances during his first week on the job, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said that he supports expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to allow for comparisons at the state and local levels, and that he favors choice policies that would allow private organizations to operate public schools.

In meetings with reporters and educators last week, the former Governor of Tennessee occasionally delved into substantive issues, but only hinted at his specific agenda. He wasted no time, however, in making the office his own.

His first day on the job, Mr. Alexander kept a schedule rich with photo opportunities: lunch with a group of honored teachers, an informal meeting with reporters, and an address to Education Department employees.

Later in the week, he made his first appearance before an education group, addressing a joint conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Mr. Alexander endeavored to win over each audience with the unassuming, folksy charm that served him well in Tennessee, as well with his sense of purpose.

He took time to shake hands with a stream of civil servants, repeatedly told educators he was making note of their suggestions, and gave the teachers and reporters free rein to explore his office, which he has very quickly turned into a personal statement.

The huge desk used by previous occupants has given way to a small, timeworn wooden table, and other furniture has been replaced by equally experienced rocking chairs. The walls are covered with pictures, signed political cartoons, antique maps, and drawings of Tennessee scenes.

Shelves and a table hold wood carvings, family photographs, and a box of “Goo Goo Clusters,” a chocolate-and-peanut confection made in the Volunteer State. Two collections are on display: walking sticks given Mr. Alexander when he traversed the state during his 1978 gubernatorial campaign, and a varied selection of elephant figurines given him by Republican friends.

Advice From ‘Soldiers’

The teachers, all of whom were former national “teachers of the year,” urged Mr. Alexander to back career development and support services for teachers, and the involvement of practitioners in reform efforts.

“I’m glad the general’s first act was to call in soldiers from the front line,” said Terry Weeks, a history instructor at Middle Tennessee State University who taught at a Murfreesboro, Tenn., middle school when he was named teacher of the year in 1988. “It’s an important first impression.”

The teachers left with goody bags containing department literature and copies of one of Mr. Alexander’s books.

The reporters and state officials left their meetings with little more than a friendly first impression. Mr. Alexander declined to comment on his personal goals, specific legislation, or the Education Department budget.

He promised to be an “advocate” for education programs, but noted that his initiatives must “fit into” a restricted overall budget.

“If I believed that my marching orders were limited to what goes into a federal budget, I’d still be in Tennessee,” said Mr. Alexander, who was president of the University of Tennessee at the time of his nomination.

“Some people get the idea that a federal education policy is a federally funded program,” he said. “That won’t transform American education and won’t create an education Presidency.”

Mr. Alexander said he was assembling a proposed “strategy” for meeting the national education goals set last year by President Bush and the National Governors Association, which he said he would present to Mr. Bush for his approval.

He said the problems he aims to attack with that strategy are the public’s perception that “there’s not a problem” in education, the slow pace and “timidity” of the reform movement, the need for continuing education for adults, and the factors outside schools that affect learning.

“Communities have to get a grip on the fact that they can’t just drop their kids at a school and expect them to be educated,” Mr. Alexander said.

A ‘New Kind of School’

When asked by educators about the role of naep in meeting the goals, Mr. Alexander noted that he had been chairman of a committee that recommended expanding the testing program to yield state-level data.

“I thought it would be helpful to have naep [data] available to states,” he said. “I think it would be useful to have it available on a local basis as well.”

In his discussion with reporters, Mr. Alexander outlined a sophisticated view of educational choice, saying he envisions a system where “school districts don’t have the exclusive monopoly to operate what we call public schools.”

A public school, he said, could be redefined as a school that receives public funds and is “accountable to public authority,” a philosophy based substantially on the work of Ted Kolderie, a senior associate with the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis, whom Mr. Alexander mentioned by name. Public schools, he suggested, could be operated by public entities such as the Smithsonian Institution, by private nonprofit organizations, or by businesses.

Could this include religious organizations?

“Maybe,” Mr. Alexander said. “When you go down the continuum, it gets more difficult.”

“Of course, I would support the President’s proposal,” Mr. Alexander said, referring to a plan outlined in President Bush’s budget to reward school districts for creating choice plans that allow parents to choose public or private schools and to use public funds at private schools. It is unclear to what extent those policies would have to include religious schools.

“Public schools operated by school districts are all we have today, so all you can do is jump to wholly private schools,” Mr. Alexander said. “What I would like to see is a different sort of school.”

He said the universal, deregulated variety of school choice proposed by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe in their recent book would be “too abrupt.”

A Team Player

Several times last week, Mr. Alexander displayed both his knowledge of the education field and a politician’s knack for deflecting controversy.

For example, when Judith Billings, superintendent of public instruction for Washington State,tried to win a commitment that the Secretary would push for the recruitment of minority teachers, he asked her about the progress of her state’s “21st Century Schools” reform program.

And it was a politician who hastily called a news conference on the department’s race-based scholarship policy that caused a firestorm of controversy in December. (See story, page 26.)

On Monday, Mr. Alexander told reporters he would announce this week how the department will study the issue of whether such scholarships violate civil-rights law.

Upon learning that Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Michael L. Williams was to testify on the issue before a Congressional committee at 10 A.M. Wednesday, Mr. Alexander scheduled a news conference with Mr. Williams at 9:15 A.M..

Was it an attempt to attract attention away from the hearing?

“That would be all right if that happened,” Mr. Alexander said.

He was partially successful: some news accounts led with his announcement, some with the hearing.

When asked if White House officials had approved of his announcement, Mr. Alexander said: “I informed the White House about it, and they said ‘fine.’ It’s the department’s issue to handle. That’s why I’m here.”

However, while many have predicted that his appointment would lead to a stronger role for the department in an Administration where White House officials have largely set education policy, Mr. Alexander made a clear effort last week to say he would be a team player.

“My goal is not to be a success, but to help the President be a success,” Mr. Alexander said.

Both education officials and members of the Congress have said they hope Mr. Alexander will be an effective advocate within and outside the Administration.

The state officials he addressed last week gave him a standing ovation before he even said a word.

The Secretary said it reminded him of walking in parades with the ut football coach at the beginning of the football season.

“As the season wore on, there were different opinions,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as Alexander Wastes No Time Making Office His Own


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