Bush’s School Plan Is ‘Lamar’s Baby,’ Participants Agree

By Julie A. Miller — June 05, 1991 8 min read
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It was President Bush who ceremoniously unveiled his America 2000 plan in April, and Administration officials studiously emphasize at every opportunity that the education-reform blueprint is “the President’s strategy.”

But, based on numerous interviews over the past several weeks, a slightly different picture emerges--one with Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander clearly at the center.

Participants in the process that resulted in America 2000 and other observers say the strategy is undeniably the vision of Mr. Alexander, who conceived it before he arrived here and refined it with the aid of a small team of trusted staff and associates.

That process--which observers say parallels his work style as Governor of Tennessee--offers some clues about how the new Secretary operates and who has his ear.

It is also clear evidence that the Education Department and its leader have assumed a significant role in the making of education policy in the Bush Administration--a domain that the White House had previously dominated.

“This was Lamar’s baby,” one Education Department official who worked on America 2000 said. “He was firmly in control all the way.”

In an interview last week, Mr. Alexander said he began planning the strategy the day Mr. Bush offered him the Secretary’s post in December.

“I said, ‘I want to gather thoughts from people around the country as to how to make you the ‘education President,’ and bring them to you,” Mr. Alexander related. “You can change them or throw them in the wastebasket, but give me my marching orders.”’

Mr. Alexander said he began work in earnest on Jan. 16, when he called a group of advisers together at a Tennessee farm to discuss strategy. Participants say they remember the date vividly, because it was the day the war in the Persian Gulf began, and they watched war bulletins on television during breaks in the discussion.

“What he wanted was a seminar on education,” said Denis P. Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a participant in the meeting. “We went through the whole shooting match.”

In the Inner Circle

According to Mr. Alexander and other participants, attendees included David Kearns, the former Xerox Corporation executive who is now deputy secretary of education; Saul Cooperman, the former New Jersey commissioner of education; Michael Nettles, an assessment expert who Mr. Alexander installed in a vice presidency when he was president of the University of Tennessee; Louis Lavine, who was one of Mr. Alexander’s top aides when he was Governor of Tennessee and is now advising him on a part-time basis; and Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University.

The Secretary said he also consulted with others in the education field, mentioning former Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey, now president of Drew University, and Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the education department at Brown University.

Mr. Sizer is also the director of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of innovative schools that Mr. Alexander has cited as an example of an effort to design “new American schools,” one part of America 2000.

Mr. Sizer said last week that Mr. Alexander first asked him to lunch to discuss the coalition’s work, then asked him to draft a memorandum “pertaining to what a federal program could look like.”

Mr. Sizer said that he sees a lot of his ideas in the finished proposal, and that he suggested apportioning schools to each Congressional district. But he said he had recommended launching more than 535 schools, and he strongly disagrees with Mr. Alexander’s decision to delegate research into innovative school design to a private corporation run by business executives.

Mr. Alexander said the idea of “break the mold” schools is one he had long been interested in, noting that “there are many good examples of people across America deciding to start from scratch.”

Other key components of the strategy, such as educational choice and high-stakes achievement testing, are also ideas the Secretary has been talking about for years.

Finn Credited

Nelson Andrews, chairman of the Tennessee state board of education, said he discussed the idea of creating innovative new schools with Mr. Alexander when he was Governor, and also whether it would be advisable to include a school-choice voucher proposal in the “better schools” plan Mr. Alexander eventually saw enacted in Tennessee.

Most observers credit Mr. Finn, a longtime friend of Mr. Alexander who advised him informally when he was Governor and served as an Education Department official in the Reagan Administration, as the source of some of the ideas in America 2000.

The Secretary has repeatedly noted that he read Mr. Finn’s recent book, We Must Take Charge, shortly after his nomination, and “it saved me six months.”

Among the book’s main themes are advocacy of national standards and tests, choice, and a national effort to focus on “the other 91 percent,” a reference to a study that found children spend only 9 percent of their time in school. (See book excerpt, page 28.)

Mr. Alexander adopted that phrase, and one of the four “tracks” in America 2000 deals with the need to involve parents and communities to improve schools and the environments children grow up in. The others call for developing the “new American schools,” improving existing schools through choice and accountability, and fostering lifelong learning and training for adults.

Mr. Finn was unavailable for comment last week, but others involved with America 2000 said he played a key role in its development and, in Mr. Doyle’s words, “spent a lot of time at the Education Department.’'

Mr. Lavine also worked on the project as it was refined, and a team of Education Department employees, headed by Bruno V. Manno, now acting assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, was assigned to it in February, weeks before Mr. Alexander’s nomination was confirmed.

Lawrence Feinberg, an assistant director of the governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also worked on the project.

However, while Mr. Alexander had help in refining the details of America 2000, participants and close observers all say that the Secretary personally conceived the bulk of the plan.

“America 2000 is authentically Lamar Alexander’s,” Mr. Doyle said. “The ideas that are in it are ideas he brought to the table.”

By the time Mr. Manno was named to head the drafting effort, he said, Mr. Alexander “had the four tracks pretty well sketched out.”

Mr. Alexander “was very much involved,” he said. “There were times when he would sit down for four to six hours at a crack and read the thing line by line.”

Significantly, White House officials played only a peripheral role.

Mr. Alexander emphasized that he took pains to consult with John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Roger B. Porter, the President’s domestic-policy adviser.

“I kept them informed all along,” Mr. Alexander said. “I wasn’t about to just show up one day with a big, thick book for the President.’'

“This is the President’s strategy, not mine,” he added, “and I wanted to be sure the people on his team were comfortable with it and were in on it.”

Charles E.M. Kolb, a deputy to Mr. Porter who regularly discussed the emerging plan with Mr. Manno and other participants, called it “a distinctly collaborative process,” adding: “It was a lot of fun, and I hope you quote that.”

But both Mr. Kolb and Mr. Manno, as well as others involved in the project, acknowledged that the plan originated with Mr. Alexander and was hammered out primarily by his team.

White House officials “didn’t get the first draft, but at some point they began to see drafts,” Mr. Manno said.

A White House aide said that “there is no power struggle between the department and the White House,” and that it is common for policy to originate in a Cabinet agency.

But other observers noted that White House officials had made the important policy decisions in education before Mr. Alexander’s arrival. For example, the development of national education goals in conjunction with the National Governors’ Association was directed almost exclusively by Mr. Porter and his staff.

“The department was pretty much out of it, that’s true, and this was definitely the Secretary’s initiative,” an Education Department official said, adding: “He was smart. He involved the White House enough so that there wasn’t a conflict.”

Parallels to Tennessee

Observers familiar with Mr. Alexander’s career noted that the process he used to create America 2000--drafting a comprehensive plan with the aid of close advisers, then setting out to sell it to the public--is reminiscent of the way he went about creating and promoting his “better schools” plan in Tennessee.

Mr. Alexander eventually succeeded in enacting that plan.

But educators there still express resentment at not being consulted about the plan. Some think he may be making that mistake again.

“Too much education policy is being cast without attention to people who are the professionals, who are out there making it happen,” Mr. Sizer said, adding that many educators he has spoken to are dubious about America 2000, and particularly about its call for an increased emphasis on testing.

“I often wonder if Norman Schwartzkopf would have led an attack when his troops were laughing at his plan,” Mr. Sizer said.

Mr. Andrews argued that a top-down approach would be better accepted on the national level, adding: “It’s when it comes time to actually implement things that you take some lumps.”

“And I would expect he would get more input this time,” Mr. Andrews said. “I don’t think he’ll take on the [National Education Association].”

Mr. Alexander said he has “tried to listen to the ideas of educators very carefully,” noting that he met with a group of teachers his first day in office and that he has met with leaders of the teachers’ unions.

He also said that he thinks teachers’ attitudes have changed.

“To be really blunt about it, in the 80’s, people who tried to change things ran into the education establishment, and it caused brawls,” Mr. Alexander said. “People were consulted with in Tennessee at great length, but they just didn’t like the ideas.”

“I think the 90’s are different,” he said. “Before, educators were saying, ‘What are all these people talking about?’ Now they’re saying, ‘Maybe we should get together to change things.”’

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as Bush’s School Plan Is ‘Lamar’s Baby,’ Participants Agree


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