Kearns Vows To Turn E.D. Around as He Did Xerox

By Mark Pitsch — May 15, 1991 3 min read

Washington--David T. Kearns, the chairman of the Xerox Corporation, last week told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee that if confirmed as deputy secretary of education, he would bring to the Education Department the management skills he used to turn his once-foundering company into a successful, competitive business.

Comparing today’s schools to Xerox in the early 1980’s, Mr. Kearns said the American education system can bounce back, just as Xerox did later in the decade.

The company had “lost its imagination, its fervor,” he said. “We got satisfied with ourselves.”

“I believe American schools can also recover their competitive edge and again exemplify the highest standards of education in the international community,” said Mr. Kearns, the chief executive officer of Xerox from 1982 to 1990.

President Bush announced the nomination of Mr. Kearns--a leader among businessmen who have spoken out on education issues--in March at the swearing in of Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

Politicians, business officials, and members of the education community almost universally praised the choice. That praise was echoed last week by members of the Labor and Human Resources panel.

Its chairman, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, called Mr. Kearns “a tire4less spokesman for improvements in public education.”

The Massachusetts Democrat, promising a speedy review and confirmation process, also said he expected the nominee to solicit support for precollegiate education from the business community, which he noted has traditionally been more likely to assist higher education.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kennedypressed Mr. Kearns on what his specific responsibilities would be and on opinions he expressed in his 1988 book, Winning the Brain Race.

The nominee told Mr. Kennedy, who said some observers feared that Mr. Kearns would spend too much time raising money for the Administration’s planned New American Schools Development Corporation, that his primary responsibility would be managing the day-to-day operations of the department.

He said he also would assist in implementing the America 2000 strategy, of which the private research corporation is a part, and to act as a liaison to the business community.

“I will not be a money raiser,” Mr. Kearns said.

Mr. Kennedy pointed out that Mr. Kearns’s book, written with Denis P. Doyle of the Hudson Institute, favored parental-choice programs, but not if they include private schools; called the failure to fully fund Head Start and Chapter 1 programs “irresponsible"; and said the low caliber of educational research was “shocking” to the business community.

Mr. Kearns responded by saying he still agreed with those assessments, although he now would support educational-choice programs that include private schools--the position taken by the Bush Administration--because he knows more about how choice would work and because there is broader support for the idea.

Choice will not work if it serves to “break down” the public school system, Mr. Kearns said, describing public schools as one of the nation’s “fundamental underpinnings.”

He said that today he would be more tactful in criticizing the funding levels of preschool programs, and that educational research may have improved since his book was published.

Although the Senate panel did not attempt to use Mr. Kearns to take the pulse of the corporate community on education issues, Mr. Kearns did say that business leaders were ready to make a commitment to education.

The nominee recalled that when Mr. Alexander asked him to serve as his deputy, he was reluctant, thinking he could better support education reform from the private sector.

But after discussions with Mr. Alexander and President Bush, Mr. Kearns said, “I was persuaded that I could best serve President Bush and the American people by being an insider rather than and outsider.”

At a luncheon meeting last week with education reporters, Mr. Alexander said it took several phone calls to recruit Mr. Kearns.

“I told David he had a responsibility to do this, and he was shocked,” the Secretary said. “Then, I got the President to call him--during the war. It’s very hard to turn down a president who calls you in the middle of a war and tells you this is something he wants you to do.’'

Meanwhile, the Education Department last week announced a new personnel move. Edward C. Stringer has resigned as general counsel as of June 7. He will serve as a consultant to the Secretary, but “is considering private-sector opportunities,” a news release said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 1991 edition of Education Week as Kearns Vows To Turn E.D. Around as He Did Xerox