By J.R. Sirkin — October 30, 1985 19 min read
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“The establishment of the task forces reflects his view that what the states do is extremely important,” says Joseph Nathan, a former school principal who is a consultant to the task forces.

Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s popular young Republican governor, likes to say that governors should spend at least half of their time convincing people that they’re right. Following him around Democratic west Tennessee as he tries to galvanize community support for his “Better Schools Program,” it’s easy to see why.

He’s very good at it.

On this day, one of many like it in a campaign that will take him to each of the state’s 141 school districts, the Governor visits five schools, flying out of Nashville at 7 A.M. and returning at 4 P.M. He meets with teachers, students, and community leaders, and at each stop the message is the same: Better schools mean better jobs for Tennessee, so let’s hang together and make this program work.

His meetings with teachers are polite but strained, probably because the state’s National Education Association affiliate has done everything possible to derail the centerpiece of his reform efforts--the nation’s first-ever statewide career-ladder program for teachers.

Out of seeming deference to the Governor, few teachers at his meetings raise specific objections to the evaluation system that has turned their professional lives upside down over the past year. “The ones who are opposed just kept quiet,” said one teacher after a meeting at Lexington High School.

The Governor tells the teachers he has come to hear their complaints, not their praise. “I’ve developed an awfully thick skin after seven years,” he assures them, adding “I can’t fix it if I don’t know it.’'

Then the Governor praises his audience for “being part of this profession.”

“It’s the most important one we have and we’re trying to build respect for it,” he says. He also thanks them for participating in the career-ladder program, despite their union’s opposition to it. “Thanks for being pioneers,” he says.

Finally, he offers advice on how to promote change in the schools. Focus your efforts on one or two problems, he tells them; that way you can have the most impact. And since teachers who reach levels II and III on the career ladder can teach on a 12-month contract, your community can use those teachers to work on the problems during the summer, he says.

Then he hits them with the clincher: Since the state funds the career ladder, “the more teachers move up the ladder, the more money comes into your county.”

‘Education Governor’

Skillfully blending the themes of better schools and better jobs, Governor Alexander has emerged as perhaps the most in-fluential of the nation’s “education governors.”

In January of 1983, months before the Education Commission of the States and the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued reports that helped spark the reform movement, Mr. Alexander got the jump not only on other governors but on President Reagan, launching a 10-point “Better Schools Program” that included his still-controversial career-ladder program.

More recently, as chairman of the National Governors’ Association, he created seven new education task forces that could alter the course and structure of that organization, experts say.

Previously, he had also been chairman of the Southern Regional Education Board, chief spokesman on education for the Southern Governors’ Association, and a member of the Education Commission of the States’ Task Force on Education and Economic Growth.

But what has really thrust Mr. Alexander into the limelight is the perception that Tennessee is gaining industrial eminence as a direct result of its surge of school reform.

That perception, which the Governor has carefully nurtured, was reinforced earlier this year when the General Motors Corporation announced plans to build a multibillion-dollar plant to produce its new Saturn automobile in Tennessee, citing the state’s school reforms as one reason. It will be the largest single industrial investment in U.S. history.

“We were thoroughly impressed with Tennessee’s commitment to education,” said William Hoglund, the president of Saturn Corporation, in making the announcement. “The concept of paying for performance is one we at gm believe in.”

Man for His Times

That Mr. Alexander has managed to achieve such an enviable position as the governor of a state not noted for its education system--Tennessee ranks near the bottom of the states in per-pupil expenditures and near the top in dropout rates--is a tribute to his skills as a politician and his tenacity in pushing his reforms through the Democratic-controlled state legislature.

How he got there after a first term in which, according to one Democratic state legislator, he ran the risk of “going down as a footnote in Tennessee history,” is the story of a personal and political “metamorphosis” that some people think could land him in the White House one day.

A Southern Republican in an era of conservatism and party realignment, an ambitious governor during the Reagan crusade for a new federalism, and an effective communicator in the electronic age--Lamar Alexander, age 45, is first and foremost a man for his times.

Bright, attractive, and energetic, he is also a salesman par excellence: for his state, his programs, and, some say, for himself. “I’m the governor of Tennessee, so it’s kind of hard to make the state look bad while I make me look good,” Governor Alexander says. “I have to maintain public support to do my job.”

Most Tennesseans clearly believe that the Governor is doing his job well. Mr. Alexander enjoys an approval rating of better than 70 percent, remarkable for a Republican in a traditionally Democratic state.

But critics accuse Mr. Alexander of governing with one eye on the public-opinion polls and of ducking tough issues, including tax reform and the state’s deteriorating prison system, which offer nothing but political trouble.

“This is a laid-back, fairly young governor who senses the pulse of the people and calculates just about everything he does on the basis of what it does for him politically,” says Thomas Ungs, head of the department of political science at the University of Tennessee. “He just doesn’t make mistakes politically. He runs a very smooth operation.’'

“He champions public education because that’s what he can ride longest and strongest,” adds Tom Cannon, president of the Tennessee Education Association, which represents 90 percent of the state’s more than 45,000 teachers. “He took the pulse of the public and saw where it was going. Obviously, he made the right choice. It’s a subject whose time had come.”

But others credit Mr. Alexander for choosing his issues well.

“He has the knack for proposing programs that are both sound on their merits and politically advantageous,” says M. Lee Smith, editor of a political newsletter and an old friend of the Governor’s. “He’s got himself going down parallel roads, so to speak.”

“Lamar knows how to capitalize on issues that are catching and benefit from them and do some good,” says John S. Wilder, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor. “Take master teacher--he made a national splash with that and got Mr. Reagan saying the same thing.”

Political Insider

In 1970, when Winfield Dunn became Tennessee’s first Republican governor in half a century, his campaign manager was Mr. Alexander, then 30 years old.

A graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville and New York University law school, Mr. Alexander had previously worked in the Nixon White House as an aide to Bryce Harlow, the Congressional liaison, and then as chief aide to U.S. Senator Howard Baker.

But Mr. Alexander was never too content to work as a behind-the-scenes political operative, according to his political associates.

“On even days he wanted to be governor and on odd days he wanted to be senator,” says one of his aides.

“That was his mission in life--to run for high office,” adds Mr. Smith. “Most everything he did was based on ‘how does this help me achieve the goal I’ve set for myself?”’

The Governor maintains his close relationship with Mr. Baker and now serves as chairman of the “kitchen cabinet” advising the former Senate majority leader on his run for the Presidency.

In fact, it was Mr. Baker who first introduced Mr. Alexander to Roger B. Smith, chairman of gm, according to a Baker aide.

Mr. Dunn’s election, and the earlier success of Mr. Baker, appeared to open the political door for Mr. Alexander.

Until then, high offices in Tennessee had been all but closed to Republicans, according to J. Leiper Freeman, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

“Tennessee, as much as any of the states in the South, has changed remarkably in the last 30 years,” he notes.

Dating back to the Civil War, the state’s Republicans had been politically isolated in the hills of East Tennessee, where Mr. Alexander was raised, according to Mr. Freeman. Unable to field candidates of high quality for statewide office, they would cross over in primary elections and vote for conservative Democrats.

“These are people whose grandfathers were against the Civil War. They never had any slaves or any contact with the plantation culture,” Mr. Freeman says.

But when the reformers in the Democratic party, led by Estes Kefauver, the former U.S. Senator and party nominee for the Vice Presidency in 1956, got the upper hand in the 1960’s, many conservative Democrats changed their party allegiance, he said, and “the two-party system really got going.”


To each of his early positions, those who know his work say, Mr. Alexander brought the strategic political skills that would later become one of his trademarks as governor.

“He brought an extremely capable mind for political decisionmaking and strategic thinking,” says Mr. Dunn, widely expected to succeed Mr. Alexander when his second term expires in 1987.

“Lamar Alexander is just a very astute political thinker,” says his friend, Mr. Smith. “He’s his own best strategist.”

But Mr. Alexander had a difficult time making the transition from behind-the-scenes political operative to successful political candidate.

He lost his first run for the governorship to Ray Blanton, the Democratic nominee, after which, according to Mr. Dunn, Mr. Alexander “went through a metamorphosis.”

“He developed a personal warmth, an outgoing political personality,’' that enabled him to “connect” with the state’s voters, Mr. Dunn says.

“He does seem to have some kind of political gift,” agrees Jack Murrah, vice president of the Lyndhurst Foundation of Chattanooga, which has supported school-reform efforts in the South. “He’s young, energetic, bright, and he has the common touch.”

Few Early Initiatives

The son of two schoolteachers, it was perhaps only natural that Governor Alexander eventually would turn his attention to the problems of education in his state.

But during his first term in office, he gave no signs of doing so. Per-pupil spending on education actually fell statewide between 1979 and 1981, and the Governor was criticized for his inaction on the issue.

Elected during the national taxpayer revolt as the successor to Mr. Blanton, who was convicted of selling paroles, Mr. Alexander devoted most of his attention to restoring the integrity of his office and attracting new industry to the state.

On both counts, he has succeeded, even his critics agree.

“He’s made a tremendous splash with economic development. He’s just a hero on that,” says Mr. Freeman, the Vanderbilt professor.

The first economic breakthrough came in 1980, when Nissan Motor Company Ltd. announced that after a six-year search, it had decided to make the largest Japanese foreign investment ever--more than $745-million--to build an automobile and truck factory in Smyrna.

Many factors influenced Nissan’s decision to invest in Tennessee, a company spokesman said, among them the state’s central location, its right-to-work laws, and its low taxes. But Governor Alexander, who has gone out of his way to cultivate Nissan and other Japanese firms, making eight trips to date to Japan, shares the credit.

“He spent more time with them than any governor I’ve ever seen,” says Fred Harris, director of economic development for the Nashville area Chamber of Commerce.

“Lamar deserves credit because of his personality, his demeanor, and his ability to persuade,” says Mr. Wilder, the lieutenant governor.

According to the state’s department of economic and community development, 32 Japanese companies, employing 7,000 workers, have invested more than $1 billion in Tennessee--10 percent of all Japanese investment in the United States.

The industrial boom that started with the arrival of Nissan has continued; new manufacturing investment topped $1.3 billion in each of the last two years. The boom hit its peak earlier this year when gm announced plans to build the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, not far from the Nissan factory in Smyrna.

Focus on Education

Sometime in 1981, Mr. Alexander started to focus on improving education as a way to better the state’s long-term economic prospects. Aides characterize that decision as a “progression” in his thinking, but others considered it a major shift.

“The goals in that first term did not include a revolutionary education program,” says Tom Ingram, the Governor’s first chief of staff. ''The goals included restoring confidence in government, making government more efficient, and jobs. In pursuing these goals, it became clear that Tennesseans were so poor because they were so poorly educated. It was out of that that the education program emerged.”

Mr. Smith, one of those who criticized the Governor for not acting earlier to improve education, sees it differently. “His thinking changed rather dramatically,” says Mr. Smith. “Up until then, his attitude had been to promote economic growth, believing that it would provide revenues for education. Then he decided instead to raise taxes to improve education, figuring that that would bring new industry to the state and create new revenues you could plow back.”

“I think he came to the conclusion that we could not increase per-capita income in rapid-fire fashion and then turn around and improve education,” he concludes. “What caused him to change his mind, I don’t know.”

The Governor himself says this: “I got into better schools because I found it was a way to get better jobs. The first two years, I set out to recruit industry. Then I realized that was not the answer. Most jobs are grown, not recruited.”

Without an improved education system, “we weren’t going to catch up, we were going to fall further behind,” he says.

‘Intent’ on Being Best

Others say Mr. Alexander’s ambition and his strong desire to leave his mark on the state played a key role in his decision to focus his second term on education.

“I think Lamar is intent on not being just a good governor, but on being the best governor the state has ever had,” says Mr. Ingram. “He would like history to record him as that, 50 or 100 years from now.”

But with no major legislation to his credit after his first term, Mr. Alexander had little hope of achieving that objective.

“Toward the end of his first term, he started saying, ‘If I’m elected again, what will these eight years have been about? What is it I want to accomplish?”’ recalls David White, a longtime political supporter. “The more he got into education, the more convinced he became that it was the thing to do.”

At the same time, Mr. Alexander “had the political acumen to recognize a political issue that wasn’t hot, but could become hot because of the general dissatisfaction with the schools,” notes Mr. Murrah of the Lyndhurst Foundation.

But according to Mr. White, “At the time, it seemed to him a very big gamble, because he had to raise taxes. Politicians in Tennessee at that time had the feeling that raising taxes was death. For Lamar, it was a very frightening thing, and a very difficult decision for him to make.”

“It’s clearly the boldest, most controversial thing he’s done,” says Mr. Ingram.

‘A National Model’

Much of the political opportunity inherent in the Governor’s education package, as well as much of what made it attractive to the public, lay in his master-teacher proposal, later modified by the legislature and renamed the “career ladder.”

“We realized we were doing something that had not been done with much success or innovation elsewhere,” Mr. Ingram says. “We realized if we got it done and it was successful that it would be viewed as a national model and would have some value to him if he ever wanted it.”

Keel Hunt, a key adviser to the Governor, says Mr. Alexander settled on the master-teacher concept rather than a simple across-the-board pay increase in part because of fiscal considerations.

Combined with across-the-board increases approved by the legislature, a teacher who reaches the top of Tennessee’s career ladder can earn about $10,000 a year more than was possible before the program was approved.

“If we had quintupled taxes, we could not have given that to all teachers,” Mr. Hunt notes.

But Mr. Alexander says he settled on the master-teacher concept be-

cause Tennesseans were not willing to pay more in taxes for “more of the same.”

“I can’t conceive of infusing excellence into schools without rewarding teachers,” he says. “Unless we could attract the best teachers, none of the other stuff matters.”

“The whole idea of the career ladder is to reward people,” he adds. “Why should anyone look forward to a profession where you start at $13,000 and end at $17,000?”

Strong Selling Point

Its merits aside, the master-teacher proposal also provided Governor Alexander with a strong selling point for the entire package, observers note.

“The Governor capitalized on the concept of master teacher,” Mr. Wilder, the lieutenant governor, says. “‘Master teacher': It’s like ‘sunshine’ or ‘sunset'--a word or concept that could be sold. There was a need for better education, K-12, and the answer became master teacher.”

Without it, Mr. Wilder says, “there would have been no comprehensive bill.”

“Tennessee was sort of dead in the water and not going anywhere,” adds Nelson Andrews, chairman of the state board of education. “No one was paying much attention to education. The question becomes: ‘What do you do in Tennessee to get the legislature and the people behind you?”’

“I think there had to be something dramatic,” says Mr. Andrews. “If he had said, ‘Let’s raise entry-level salaries,’ that doesn’t have much sex appeal. He said something people and certainly the business community could understand: ‘Let’s pay the best teachers more money.”’

The tea’s Mr. Cannon agrees: “He sold that very simple concept to the public: ‘If we could pay more to the good ones and get rid of the the bad ones, would you pay for it with a tax increase?’ They rose up and said ‘yes.”’

‘We Insisted on It’

Once Governor Alexander decided on his education program, he fought for it with a skill and tenacity that ultimately carried the day. “I’m stubborn, so we insisted on it,” he says.

Douglas Bailey, of Bailey, Deardourff, and Sipple, a political consulting firm that counts Mr. Alexander among its clients, said of the Governor’s efforts to pass the bill: “I’ve never seen any more single-minded effort to achieve a goal than Alexander gave to this program. It was extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it before and I never will again. Every speech, every moment of every day was devoted single-mindedly to selling this controversial program.”

“The thing that struck me was just how intense he was about it,” Mr. Ingram, the former staff chief, adds. “Even people in Cabinet posts running major departments thought he was not paying enough attention to them.”

“He didn’t just come out with this 10-point plan. He really committed himself to following through on it,” says Robert C. Andringa, former executive director of the Education Commission of the States.

“The strategy was to persuade the public to persuade the General Assembly” in order to overcome “the significant opposition” of the tea, Mr. Ingram adds.

The scars from the battle still show, especially when Mr. Alexander discusses the tea, his principal foe.

“I’ve got more confidence in Tennessee teachers than the tea has,” he says, when asked about the union’s opposition to his plan. “Most of the anti-teacher propaganda is in the tea news.”

Looking back on his efforts to pass the career-ladder program, he says, “We basically tried to raise money from people who didn’t want to pay it and give it to people who didn’t want to take it.”

Now, he says, “It’s here to stay. It’s funded, it’s got the state board behind it, it’s got popular support among the people, increasing support among teachers, and I wish it had the support of the teachers’ union.”

But as Mr. Smith points out: “The situation Lamar is in is that if it works and works effectively, then again he will get some political credit and the state moves that much further along in enhancing education. If it comes unglued, then people will say, ‘The teachers tried to tell him it would fail.”’


Although most Tennesseans view the Governor as a pragmatist, Mr. Freeman, of Vanderbilt, says he sees “a lot of the conservative east Tennessee hill Republican” in Mr. Alexander.

His education agenda, in particular, has a decidedly conservative ring, with choice--public-school vouchers--high on the list. One of the task forces he set up at the National Governors Association will focus on choice, and the Governor says he may fund some pilot voucher programs in Tennessee before his term ends.

Mr. Alexander, who sends his four children to private schools (“I don’t send them to private schools,” he asserts, “I send them to the best schools I can find.”), says “there is no reason in the world to tell parents where their children have to go to school.”

He calls choice “a powerful all-American issue that can attract support to the public schools,” adding that it is “the single finest way to improve inner-city schools” because it would “force them to be good.”

N.G.A. Initiative

Mr. Alexander also takes a decidedly federalist approach to his role as governor, which is reflected in his N.G.A. initiative.

“The establishment of the task forces reflects his view that what the states do is extremely important,” says Joseph Nathan, a former school principal who is a consultant to the task forces.

“Schools, jobs, and roads are what governors have to do,” Mr. Alexander says. “Also prisons, although that doesn’t have much to do with the quality of life.”

The Governor says he hopes to turn the N.G.A.away from being a debate forum on national politics and toward being a service organization that will help governors share ideas.

His initiative could also have a major impact on the Education Commission of the States, which the governors have traditionally turned to on education matters.

“Lamar just pulled a coup,” says Mr. Andringa, formerly of E.C.S. Rather than fight the N.G.A.'s entrenched committee structure or work through ecs, “he just put the task forces on top.”

Even if nothing comes of the task- force recommendations, the governors serving on the task forces will have had a “tremendous inservice education,” Mr. Andringa argues.

“Most governors haven’t learned enough about the subject by the time they leave office to make a difference,” Mr. Alexander says. “If governors ever become sufficiently informed about these issues, they will set the national agenda, because the states are making policy.”


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