Educators Hail Nomination of Alexander as Secretary

By Julie A. Miller — January 09, 1991 11 min read
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In tapping former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to be the next Secretary of Education, President Bush chose someone with a long and deep track record on education issues and substantial credibility in the education community.

Educators and political observers, both nationally and in Tennessee, say Mr. Bush has also chosen a master salesman and a savvy political player who will be an articulate and energetic spokesman for education reform.

“In my view, he’s the first real Secretary of Education,” said Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Finally, we have what I would view as a genuine effort to appoint a mainstream person with superb education credentials, a genuine education agenda, and no personal ax to grind.”

“We’ll just have to see whether it’s as good an appointment as I think and hope it will be,” Mr. Doyle said.

Jeanne Allen, education analyst for the Heritage Foundation, added: ''He has an enormous head start, because he knows everything from the buzzwords to the players. It’s also important that he is a former governor at a time when governors are playing a crucial role in education reform.”

Mr. Alexander, who served as governor from 1979 through 1986 and who has been president of the University of Tennessee since 1988, was among the first governors during the 1980’s to take an active interest in education, pushing through the state legislature an ambitious package of reforms in 1984.

His national prominence peaked in 1985 and 1986, during his tenure as chairman of the National Governors’ Association. Mr. Alexander was the driving force behind “Time for Results,” the nga report issued in 1986 that called for a comprehensive package of education reforms.

Among its numerous recommendations for state and national policy, some of them highly controversial, “Time for Results” called for a national teacher-certification board, merit pay for teachers, parental choice among public schools, year-round use of school buildings, and state “takeovers” of “academically bankrupt” school districts.

At the heart of the document is a concept the Bush Administration has since championed: giving schools more freedom from regulation in exchange for greater accountability.

“The governors are ready for some old-fashioned horse trading,” Mr. Alexander wrote in the document’s introduction. “We’ll regulate less, if schools and school districts will produce better results.”

A National Reputation

Although the n.g.a. has produced four annual follow-up reports detailing state reform efforts, observers note that it is difficult to tie specific actions to Mr. Alexander’s initiative.

In education circles, however, the so-called “1991 report” is generally considered an important milestone in the reform movement.

“‘Time for Results’ is second only to A Nation at Risk as the most important education document of the 80’s,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. “It arguably catalyzed many things that have happened since 1986 that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”

Mr. Alexander added to his national reputation by serving on numerous advisory panels and task forces, including the Southern Regional Education Board and a committee that recommended in 1987 that the National Assessment of Educational Progress be expanded so that comparisons could be made among states.

As president of the University of Tennessee, Mr. Alexander has continued to speak and write on precollegiate reform issues.

He is currently a member of President Bush’s advisory committee on education, and is the chairman of a panel that is organizing a national summit on mathematics assessment.

Last year, he and U.S. Energy Secretary James D. Watkins announced joint ventures to train retired scientists seeking new careers as teachers and to provide summer training for prospective science teachers.

As nominees for Cabinet positions traditionally have done, Mr. Alexander has declined all requests for interviews until after he is confirmed by the Senate.

Tennessee Reform Package

Mr. Alexander is best known in his home state for the reform package he called the “Better Schools Program.” Not all the reviews are favorable.

“I think most people here would consider it a mixed bag,” said Willis D. Hawley, director of the center for education policy at Vanderbilt. “Certainly he contributed to significant increases in spending on education and introduced a pretty comprehensive reform plan for the state.”

“It has not transformed the schools,” he added. “They are better, but I don’t think they’re as good as they need to be. However, you have to realize that the tax structure here doesn’t yield enough revenue to do that much.”

Some educators still complain bitterly that Mr. Alexander’s plan was “imposed from above” with little consultation, and did not address their real concerns. In interviews last fall, many observers--including those who had supported Mr. Alexander’s plan--contrasted his efforts unfavorably with the reform plan now being pushed by the current governor, Ned McWherter. (See Education Week, Oct. 17, 1990.)

Under Mr. Alexander’s plan, requirements for teacher certification were strengthened, alternative schools for disruptive students and summer programs for outstanding high-school students and for educators were created, large numbers of computers and other supplies were purchased, and the school year was increased from 175 to 180 days.

But attention was riveted on one particularly controversial component: a “career ladder” that allows teachers evaluated as “outstanding’’ to earn as much as $7,000 a year more than their peers.

The Tennessee Education Association vigorously opposed this “master teacher” idea, but grudgingly supported the bill when the plan was made optional for existing teachers.

Career Ladder Criticized

The system has since been substantially altered, but is still in place, and a large majority of the state’s teachers are participating.

Tennessee observers agree that the system is far from perfect, and some criticize it sharply.

“It depends on who you ask,” said Cavit Cheshier, executive director of the T.E.A. “Those who apply for it and make it speak highly of it. Those who don’t make it have problems with it, and some even quit because of it or become emotionally distraught.”

“Many teachers feel that what’s evaluated is irrelevant to what they’re doing,” he said.

Agreed Nelson Andrews, chairman of the state board of education and a supporter of the Better Schools Program: “The evaluation program is still pretty weak. It was done much faster than it should have been done. It didn’t originate with teachers but was jammed down on them.”

Mr. Andrews also thinks the career ladder was “oversold.”

“It has to be understood in its rightful place,” he said. “Like choice, it’s not a panacea. There is no quick fix.”

Others think the changes have hurt, not improved, the program.

“It started out as a relatively pure form of professional assessment of professional capability,” including such subjective elements as a portfolio, Mr. Hawley said. “A lot of discretion was taken out of the evaluation system, making it more mechanized.”

“It ends up being a way of giving teachers more money,” he said. “That’s what happens with most merit-pay plans.”

“The unions and other interests have chipped away at the changes ever since he left,” said Mr. Finn, who was a resident professor at Vanderbilt before being tapped as an assistant secretary of education in 1985, and advised Mr. Alexander. “If there’s an incomplete success, it’s because the people running the programs didn’t really want them to work.”

But other elements of Mr. Alexander’s reform plan are more generally praised, with most criticism focusing on ideas that were left out.

“It ignored the fact that we didn’t have elementary-school counselors, ignored the fact that we didn’t have adequate textbooks, ignored the fact that our state was known for huge class sizes,” Mr. Cheshier said. “It didn’t address the funding issue.”

Managerial Abilities Praised

Observers who worked with him in Tennessee unanimously praise Mr. Alexander’s intellectual and managerial abilities. Even Mr. Cheshier of the tea called him “a very capable man, articulate and a good organizer, a relentless worker with a great capacity and a great memory.”

“Whether he will be a good or a bad secretary depends on what he advocates and how practical it is,” Mr. Cheshier said. “I trust that in his new position he will seek the advice of practitioners more than he did here.”

Several observers predicted Mr. Alexander would develop a specific agenda and persistently pursue it.

“He is directive in his thought processes,” Mr. Andrews of the Tennessee board said. “He will get good advice, pick a few things he wants to do, and focus on them.”

“He will give a lot of thought to planning out what he and the Administration should be doing in the education area,” said Douglas Bailey, a Republican media consultant who advised Mr. Alexander. “Every program in the Department of Education probably has its champions, and a lot of them will be disappointed.”

Political Savvy Cited

At the press conference where Mr. Bush formally introduced him as his nominee for Secretary, Mr. Alexander said one of his priorities would be adult education and worker retraining. He is also expected to continue the Administration’s advocacy of parental choice among schools, an idea he championed as governor--several years before it became fashionable.

His acquaintances predicted that Mr. Alexander would be an adept occupant of the “bully pulpit,” and that his political skills would make him more successful in selling his proposals to educators, the public, and the Congress than his predecessors.

“In the 25 years I’ve been in the political consulting business, his is the best combination of intellect, energy, personability, and political savvy that I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Bailey, the media consultant, said, offering passage of the controversial Tennessee education legislation as an example of Mr. Alexander’s political skill and his ability to focus on a goal.

“He left some flexibility on the details, but not on whether it would happen, and the legislators had to deal with that,” Mr. Bailey said. “If it didn’t happen, they knew they would have to deal with Alexander for the rest of their political lives.”

“It came as close to a single-minded effort as anyone has ever seen in politics,” he said. “Even he would agree it was done at the expense of other things that might have been important.”

“He’s no rookie,” said Mr. Andrews, noting that Mr. Alexander began his political career as an aide to then-U.S. Senator Howard Baker, and later worked in the Nixon White House. “He knows the Washington situation, and he will be a player.”

Calling the Shots

Washington observers agreed that Mr. Alexander would almost certainly play a more active role in setting policy than did his predecessor, Lauro F. Cavazos. Some predicted that he would clash with Roger B. Porter, the President’s domestic-policy adviser.

“If he were allowed to lead, I think he could help the President,” said Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. “But I don’t know whether Lamar will call the shots.”

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, chairman of a panel charged with monitoring progress toward the national education goals, said John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, assured him that Mr. Alexander would be taking “a lead role” in implementing the goals, which has been almost exclusively Mr. Porter’s domain.

Others think the relationship will be more cooperative.

“I’m sure he will play more of a policy role, rather than Porter leading the whole effort,” Ms. Allen of the Heritage Foundation, said, adding: “I think he will be working closely with the White House. He’s been a governor; I think he knows how to avoid a turf battle.”

Mr. Finn added, “Instead of thinking of it as a zero-sum game where more department means less White House, think of it as a grand partnership where we have more in total.”

Mr. Porter said he is “enthusiastic” about the appointment.

“I have known him and admired him for many years, and look forward to working closely with him,” Mr. Porter said.

‘High Expectations’

The appointment was also well-received in the education community and on Capitol Hill.

“We have high expectations for Lamar Alexander,” the National School Boards Association said in a statement, praising his understanding of “the enormous challenges that confront the public schools.”

“Governor Alexander has a distinguished record in education, and earned bipartisan respect for his role in stimulating education reform in the states,” said a statement from Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Confirmation hearings had not been scheduled as of late last week, but the nomination is expected to win easy Senate approval.

“It would be hard to oppose this one,” one Democratic Senate aide said.

The only lukewarm response from the education community was that of the National Education Association, whose statement noted that union members “have not always seen eye-to-eye” with Mr. Alexander. The union would have preferred someone with classroom experience, the statement added.


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