Federal File: Tough crowd; Public relations; Downgrading?; Out of bounds?

July 31, 1991 3 min read

At the American Federation of Teachers’ quest conference this month, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander found an initially receptive audience.

They laughed at his jokes and warmly applauded him as he built on a theme of “common ground” between educators and policy makers, which he said had grown since he had last addressed the teachers’ union in 1983.

Then the Secretary mentioned his boss and the mood changed abruptly.

“We have a President of the United States who genuinely wants to be education president,” Mr. Alexander said.

With that, some members of the audience commenced hissing and booing, throwing the gathering into commotion.

Momentarily taken aback, Mr. Alexander repeated his last phrase and continued with his speech.

Several educators put their sentiments into words at a question-and-answer session.

“I think you come before us with a track record we respect a great deal,” said Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

However, he said, the Secretary is working for a “president [who doesn’t] put his budget priority into education.”

Afterwards, Mr. Alexander diplomatically told reporters that he welcomes debate.

“Whenever you have bold ideas ... you’re going to run into some resistance,” he said.

Albert Shanker, the union’s president, was not quite as forgiving.

“I’m very proud of those who knew what the right way was to challenge the Secretary and to express disagreement. I apologize for those who did not,” Mr. Shanker told his followers.

Observers said Mr. Alexander received a more positive reception from the National Association of Elementary School Principals, who met in Washington the same week.

Mr. Alexander has been promoting the America 2000 education strategy on the national circuit, as well, addressing audiences of legislators, governors, and businessmen.

On July 23, he staged a ceremony in Memphis celebrating the city’s campaign to become an “America 2000 community.”

Back in Washington, the Secretary has assembled a staff charged specifically with promoting the initiative.

In late May, he announced the appointment of Michael P. Jackson, then executive secretary for Cabinet liaison, to head the office.

Before moving to the White House, Mr. Jackson served as a special assistant to former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and followed Mr. Bennett to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

This month, Mr. Alexander hired Martin Connors, a political consultant from Birmingham, Ala., to help persuade state and local officials to jump on the bandwagon.

The dismissal of two political appointees would normally be a trivial event, but some private-education groups are upset about a recent staffing change in the Education Department’s office of private education.

Etta Fielek, a spokesman for Secretary Alexander, said the dismissals were “just part of the transition process” following Mr. Alexander’s assumption of office in March.

But it is not the first change in the office, which serves as a liaison to private education groups and works to ensure the participation of private schools in federal education programs.

In April, Mr. Alexander replaced Charles J. O’Malley, who had headed the office for 10 years. Michelle Easton, who is serving in an acting capacity, was deputy undersecretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs under former Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos.

“We see the office of private education being bounced around,” said John W. Sanders, vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools.

“Every time I look at it I see fewer people there,” he said.

Private-school advocates began speculating about the fate of the office when Mr. O’Malley was relieved, and department officials confirmed that proposals to downgrade it to a unit of the office of elementary and secondary education were circulating during Mr. Cavazos’s tenure.

Ms. Fielek said that proposal is now “irrelevant,” but the function of the office “will be totally re-evaluated.”

Representatives of several private education groups were to meet late last week with Undersecretary Ted Sanders to discuss the role of the office.

Vice President Dan Quayle this month criticized the National Education Association for taking positions on such non-education issues as abortion, gun control, the military’s ban on homosexuals, and the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I wish the teachers’ union would spend more of their time working with us to provide quality education than on some of these other matters,” the Vice President said at a meeting of the Association for a Better New York.

--kd, jm, & mw

A version of this article appeared in the July 31, 1991 edition of Education Week as Federal File: Tough crowd; Public relations; Downgrading?; Out of bounds?