Federal Explainer

Lamar Alexander, Fifth U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements

By Education Week Library Staff — August 18, 2017 | Updated: December 17, 2018 4 min read
U.S. President George H. Bush glances toward his choices for two Cabinet positions during a White House press briefing, Monday, Dec. 18, 1990 in Washington. At left is former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, the President's pick for education secretary.
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Biographical Information: Alexander was born July 3, 1940, in Maryville, Tenn. He graduated from Vanderbilt University and then obtained a law degree from New York University Law School. Before his tenure as education secretary, Alexander was governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987. He served as president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. He ran two unsuccessful presidential campaigns, in 1996 and 2000, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002 and re-elected in 2008 and 2014. He became chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in 2015.

Served Under: President George H.W. Bush

Dates of Tenure: 1991-1993

Fun Fact: He was a television host for the Discovery Channel.

Achievements in Office:

  • Alexander was a key player in crafting President George H.W. Bush’s America 2000 education plan, which included federal support for robust standards.

Archives of Note:

Tennessee’s Best Salesman
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. (Oct. 20, 1985)

Educators Hail Nomination of Alexander as Secretary
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. (Jan. 9, 1991)

After Two-Month Delay, Senate Confirms Alexander
Nearly two months after Lamar Alexander was first nominated, the Senate last week unanimously confirmed the former Tennessee governor as the next secretary of education. (Mar. 20, 1991)

Alexander Wastes No Time Making Office His Own
In a flurry of appearances during his first week on the job, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said that he supports expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to allow for comparisons at the state and local levels, and that he favors choice policies that would allow private organizations to operate public schools. (Mar. 27, 1991)

Bush’s School Plan Is ‘Lamar’s Baby,’ Participants Agree
Participants in the process that resulted in America 2000 and other observers say the strategy is undeniably the vision of Mr. Alexander, who conceived it before he arrived here and refined it with the aid of a small team of trusted staff and associates. (June 5, 1991)

Alexander Plans ‘Partnership’ To Strengthen Arts Education
Amid continuing criticism that music and the arts have been left out of national education reform efforts, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander earlier this month disclosed his intention to form a national “partnership’’ to strengthen schooling in those subjects. But Education Department officials last week could offer few details on the idea. (Mar. 18, 1992)

On Familiar Political Turf, Alexander Hits The Campaign Trail
It is 11 A.M. on a weekday, and, except for a knot of reporters and television cameramen stationed by a small voter-registration table, the Arden Fair shopping mall here is quiet. (Sept. 30, 1992)

Outgoing Department Officials Lay Plans for New Pursuits
As the Bush administration’s appointees cleared out their offices last week, some Education Department officials said they have plans for academic, legal, corporate, or public-policy pursuits, while others have no firm idea of their future plans. (Jan. 20, 1993)

Former Education Secretaries Join Forces in Alexander Campaign
Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, a co-director of the conservative think tank Empower America, last week endorsed former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, its other co-director, for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination and signed on as national chairman of Mr. Alexander’s campaign. (Feb. 21, 1996)

Alexander Sidesteps Tradition, Lands Ed. Committee Slot
Former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander got his wish this month: a seat on the Senate committee that oversees education policy. (Jan. 29, 2003)

ESSA Architect Q&A: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
The Every Student Succeeds Act turned six months old last Friday. Earlier this spring, Politics K-12’s Alyson Klein sat down with all four of the law’s main architects in Congress. … Last week, we spoke with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, about his role in getting ESSA over the finish line and the future of the law, as well as how education is playing out in the 2016 presidential contest. (June 13, 2016)

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Top Capitol Hill Republican on Education, to Retire
The chairman of the Senate education committee, a former education secretary and a main architect of the Every Student Succeeds Act, announced he will not run for re-election in 2020. (Dec. 17, 2018)

Commentaries by Lamar Alexander:

An Effort To Find Common Ground On Paying Teachers for Performance
At its recent annual meeting in Denver, the Education Commission of the States invited three prominent participants in the national debate on the topics of merit pay and master teachers to take part in a panel discussion on the issues. (Aug. 17, 1983)

A Compass in the Storm
What does it take to form effective school-business partnerships at a time when concern about excess commercialism in schools fosters scrutiny of such relationships? Former U.S. Secretaries of Education Lamar Alexander and Richard W. Riley offer “guiding principles.” (Oct. 9, 2002)

NCLB Lessons
A decade ago, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and a Republican president enacted a plan to improve our nation’s schools. Their noble goal gave us No Child Left Behind. (Jan. 5, 2012)

    Additional Resources
    Lamar Alexander’s Website Senator Alexander’s website, including a brief biography
    National Governors Association A short biography focused on his career in government service

    How to Cite This Article
    Education Week Library Staff. (2017, August 18). Lamar Alexander, Fifth U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/lamar-alexander-fifth-u-s-education-secretary-biography-and-acheivements/2017/08

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