One day after Lamar Alexander was confirmed as the secretary of education in March 1991, he strode into the White House to present President Bush with a strategy Mr. Alexander later called “the American education agenda for the rest of this century.”
That agenda, known as America 2000, called for national standards in core academic subjects, a voluntary national examination system aligned with the standards, 535 new “break the mold” schools, waivers of some federal rules, and a program that would give parents federal aid to enroll children in private and religious schools.
A year later, Mr. Bush requested $500 million for the voucher program and nearly $270 million for the rest of the plan, a request that Mr. Alexander proudly noted represented “the largest new proposals for federal spending to help local schools since 1965.”
Mr. Alexander--who also served as the governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987 and as the president of the University of Tennessee--is now pursuing the 1996 Republican presidential nomination by campaigning as an “outsider.” And he is promoting a much different federal role in education--virtually none at all.
Most of his Republican rivals express similar views. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)
Should Mr. Alexander capture the GOP nomination and challenge President Clinton in the fall, the battle would feature two former Southern governors who earned their national reputations largely with their work in education reform but who now hold drastically different views on the federal role in education.
“You’d have two informed and interested people in the issue of education,” Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, said of such a match-up. “They would argue philosophy well, and they’d also discuss policy in specifics ... and it would come at a time when education is the number-one issue in the public’s mind.”
Experts had not viewed Mr. Alexander as a strong contender, but his unexpectedly strong third-place finishes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary propelled him into the top tier of candidates. He is hoping that a victory or two in the 15 contests set for March 5, March 7, and March 12 will keep him there.
Like his Republican rivals, Mr. Alexander has said little about education outside the context of his anti-Washington message. But as the race moves to Southern states, Mr. Alexander has begun emphasizing the “new South” strategy of focusing on education reform and job growth that won him plaudits in Tennessee.
“Education is central to everything he has done throughout his career,” said Daniel Casse, the director of policy for Mr. Alexander’s campaign. “It is closely connected in his mind to growing the economy and raising family incomes.”
Changes of View
Allies say his views evolved as he realized that the federal bureaucracy cannot foment change.
“I agree that Lamar is less optimistic about the prospect of federal involvement [in education] than he was five years ago,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and perhaps Mr. Alexander’s closest education adviser.
“It’s a principled and experience-driven change of view,” said Mr. Finn, an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan.
At a January 1995 congressional hearing, Mr. Alexander suggested eliminating the Department of Education, turning most K-12 programs over to the states, and transferring to other agencies or panels functions such as civil-rights enforcement and research.
Mr. Alexander has also retreated from his support for national standards. While he opposed Democrats’ efforts to require states to set “school delivery” standards for school services, he once praised as “revolutionary” a federal commission’s recommendations to set national academic standards in core subjects and an accompanying system of exams. And he used Education Department funds to finance standards-setting in a number of curricular areas. But he has since joined numerous other critics in denouncing the results.
In addition to backing standards, innovative schools, and choice, America 2000 called on communities to devise a plan to achieve the national education goals. (See Education Week, Oct. 28, 1992.)
Mr. Alexander stands by the principles of America 2000, Mr. Casse said, and he still supports voluntary national standards and exams. But Mr. Alexander now objects to federal involvement in those efforts, he said.
“He doesn’t believe the federal government has a large role in shaping education policy, but it does have a large role in shaping the education debate,” Mr. Casse said. “America 2000 was an attempt ... to shape the debate. It was all exhortation.”
Critics, however, say the changes in Mr. Alexander’s stance are too drastic to be so easily dismissed.
“There seems to be some disconnect between what he’s saying to-day and what he was saying as secretary,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education.
“There really is a role and a function for the federal government in education, and I don’t hear any articulation of that from him,” said Mr. Cross, who served as President Bush’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement until he was replaced by Mr. Alexander with Diane Ravitch. “It goes beyond data-gathering. There’s a leadership role, and that’s what I saw out of him as education secretary.”
With his current stance on the federal role, Mr. Alexander is seeking “to be viable in the primaries,” said John Witte, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who follows education issues. “It’s good politics to say you’re going to get rid of the Department of Education and decentralize everything.”
Mr. Alexander has retained one item from his old agenda: school choice. Although he proposes to eliminate the Education Department, he has reiterated his proposal to create a federal voucher program. The “GI Bill for Kids” would allocate $1 billion to help families send their children to the public or private school of their choice, including religious schools.
“Nothing will change in this country until we change an educational system that keeps poor children trapped in failed schools where they can’t learn and from which they cannot escape,” Mr. Alexander said in a January speech announcing the proposal.
Mr. Casse said the plan would send federal funds to states or school districts, and each eligible student would get about $2,000.
Mr. Alexander has not said what children or schools would be eligible. The legislation he championed as secretary would have helped low- and middle-income families pay for any “lawful” school.
Observers agree that the choice proposal strengthens Mr. Alexander’s conservative credentials. But his education record has recently come under attack from that wing of the party.
Robert G. Morrison, an education-policy analyst at the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy organization in Washington, recently told a group of home-schooling parents that America 2000 set the stage for Goals 2000, the centerpiece of President Clinton’s education agenda. Goals 2000, which provides grants to states and districts to implement reform plans based on academic standards, has become anathema to many conservatives.
Mr. Alexander has argued that the two programs are quite different. But both Goals 2000 and America 2000 emphasize standards. And Mr. Alexander accepted the reform-grant idea when Democrats melded it with some of his own ideas in legislation that was never enacted.
“Too much control was already coming to Washington in America 2000,” Mr. Morrison said.
“It made it very difficult to leverage opposition to Goals 2000,” he said, as GOP lawmakers felt they had “endorse[d] pretty much the same thing just a year or so ago.”
Malcolm S. “Steve” Forbes Jr., one of Mr. Alexander’s rivals, made similar arguments in a news release last week. Mr. Forbes said that Mr. Alexander’s “educational proposals include expansions of federal government power” and contended that Goals 2000 “is an extension of the program Lamar put into place as a Washington politician.” He also claimed to be the only strong supporter of school choice in the race.
“What [Mr. Alexander] says he wants to do is different from what he does,” said Gretchen Morgenson, Mr. Forbes’ press secretary.
“It’s astonishing that Steve Forbes would be critical,” Mr. Casse replied, noting Mr. Alexander’s record as a choice backer. “But that’s the difference between someone who makes speeches and someone who has moved the issue as a real piece of legislation.”
On a different front, Mr. Alexander has also been criticized for his ability to turn meager investments into big profits with the help of well-placed friends. His financial dealings delayed his confirmation as secretary of education, and the story has heated up anew. (See Education Week, March 20, 1991.)
However, Mr. Alexander’s gubernatorial record, in which education issues play a central role, is generally well regarded.
“In Tennessee, he had everyone convinced that the state was doing things that no other state was doing on education reform,” said Willis D. Hawley, the dean of the school of education at the University of Maryland and a former director of the center for education policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
“The consensus is the state is better off because of it,” he said.
Mr. Alexander made a name for himself as an education reformer in 1984, when the state legislature passed a then-innovative package that lengthened the school year, increased teacher-certification requirements, created alternative schools, and paid for computers. Its cornerstone was a “career ladder” that implemented merit pay for teachers and administrators.
The reform bill raised teacher salaries and helped attract businesses to Tennessee, and Mr. Alexander was hailed as a rising star in the Republican Party. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1985.)
But critics say that Mr. Alexander did little to increase state school aid, and the career-ladder program gets mixed reviews. Improvements in such measures as test scores and dropout rates have been modest. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1991.)
Mr. Alexander was one of a group of governors who pursued education reforms aggressively in the 1980s. Another was Bill Clinton, who enacted similarly ambitious reforms in Arkansas, with similarly modest results. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)
The two even worked together as members of the National Governors’ Association. In 1985-86, when Mr. Alexander served as chairman, the group focused on education and produced “Time for Results,” an influential report emphasizing outcomes and accountability.
“The governors are ready for some old-fashioned horse trading,” Mr. Alexander wrote in the report’s introduction. “We’ll regulate less if schools and school districts will produce better results.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 1996 edition of Education Week as Alexander Has Change of Heart On Federal Role