After an unexpected delay while Senate aides probed his business transactions, Lamar Alexander was unanimously confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education in March. The former Tennessee Governor began a major shakeup of the Educat
Mr. Alexander, meanwhile, also moved quickly to leave his mark on the national education agenda--in particular, Administration watchers said, by largely shaping President Bush’s America 2000 school-reform program.
Nineteen ninety-one was the year that Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado left his mark on education. The Governor was tapped to chair the panel that would report progress on the national education goals. By his own admission, Mr. Romer knew little about tests and measurements, yet was such a quick study that observers credited him with pulling together and focusing the goals panel’s work.
Some state school chiefs had rough years. C. Diane Bishop of Arizona had to contend with charges of fraud against other officials in the education department and on an Indian reservation, and threats that some Arizona districts would lose federal impact-aid payments because of a faulty state school-finance formula. The state’s media also had a field day with stories on her reportedly troubled personal life.
In neighboring California, Bill Honig had his own troubles, as state and federal officials launched an investigation of the relationship between the state education department and a nonprofit consulting firm run by his wife. As part of its ongoing bitter feud with Mr. Honig, the state board of education sued him in the state’s supreme court in an attempt to force the superintendent to implement its policies.
Other state chiefs made news by resigning their positions following spats with legislatures or governors or simply to pursue other opportunities. Lionel Meno became the new commissioner in Texas, succeeding W.N. Kirby, who resigned in January after a long career; Harold Raynolds Jr., commissioner in Massachusetts since 1986, resigned due to his disappointment with state funding cutbacks; Don Bemis of Michigan resigned after only 2 1/2 years on the job under pressure from Gov. John Engler and Republicans on the state board; Gerald N. Tirozzi of Connecticut quit to become president of Wheelock College; Franklin P. Walter of Ohio left his job after 14 years and was succeeded by the former U.S. Education Department official Ted Sanders; after three years in the job, Joseph L. Shilling of Maryland resigned to become superintendent of his home county’s school system; J. Troy Earhart of Rhode Island left and was succeeded by Peter McWalters of the Rochester, N.Y., school district; H. Dean Evans of Indiana, the architect of the state’s “A-Plus” school-reform plan, announced he would not seek re-election in 1992 and was weighing a bid for governor or another statewide office.
Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and a foremost architect of the drive for school desegregation, announced his retirement after 24 years on the bench. As the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund for 23 years, Mr. Marshall led the assault on the legal ruling justifying “separate but equal” schools and argued Brown v. Board of Education before the High Court.
His successor, Clarence Thomas, headed the Education Department’s office for civil rights for 10 months under President Reagan and earned a reputation in the 1980’s as a leading black conservative. Following stormy confirmation hearings, he was confirmed by the Senate in October. Among the first cases he would hear were arguments on prayers at public-school graduations, the desegregation of Mississippi’s university system, and the availability of monetary damages under the federal law barring sex discrimination in education.
Armed with the latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, undertook a vigorous campaign intended to disprove the assumption that students in private schools perform better academically than do their peers in public schools. In so doing, he helped reopen a debate on the issue at the national level.
Similarly during 1991, some researchers drew attention to the question: Are America’s schools as bad as everyone says they are? Three researchers at the federally funded Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., sparked a furor when they circulated a paper concluding that the plight of American education has been overstated. Some observers charged that the Bush Administration was “burying” the report; federal officials disputed both that claim and the report’s substance and methodology. Gerald W. Bracey, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association, also challenged, in several publications, the prevailing pessimism about schools. N.E.A. officials forced him to resign because, they said, he had expressed his private opinions in a way that made him seem to be a union spokesman.
Several urban superintendents had interesting years as well. Diana Lam, the first superintendent of the Chelsea, Mass., schools under Boston University’s management of the troubled district, resigned to run for mayor of Boston. Three days later, she withdrew from the race amid charges that she and her husband failed to file income-tax forms on time and owned houses that had been cited for possible code violations.
Lois Harrison Jones, a top school official in Dallas, was named to take over the contentious Boston school district. She succeeded Laval S. Wilson, who was fired by the school committee in February 1990. With the advent this month of a new school committee appointed by the mayor, the Boston district will be one to watch in 1992.
The Milwaukee Board of Education surprised many by naming Howard L. Fuller, a social-services administrator with no previous experience in precollegiate education, to head the 98,000 student city school system.
State legislators continued to face mounting budget deficits, increased demands for services, and simultaneous demands for lower taxes. State Senator Carl A. Parker of Texas, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, deserves mention for crafting the compromise bill that finally ended his state’s school-finance crisis and kept its public schools from shutting down.
Perhaps the most talked-about education book of the year was Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. Drawing on extensive visits to inner-city and suburban classrooms, the well-known social activist and former teacher concluded that the nation’s schools are more racially and economically segregated than ever, and he called for drastic changes in how schools are financed.
Others who left their mark on education included Theodor Seuss Geisel, the enormously popular and influential Dr. Seuss, who died at age 87 ... Daniel Weisman and family, of Providence, R.I., whose objection to prayers at a school graduation ceremony ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court... Theodore Johnson, a Florida retiree and education booster who put his money where his mouth was by donating $36 million to set up scholarships for high-school graduates... Christopher Columbus, whose voyage of discovery and the upcoming quincentenary of that event helped prompt in 1991 a major rethinking among teachers of how to present the colonization of America.
A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as And a Look at Some of the People Who Made the News