IN CHOOSING Rep. Lynn Martin of Illinois and former governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to be secretaries of labor and education, President Bush has proposed two strong additions to his Cabinet. Mr. Alexander, now president of the University of Tennessee, is a particularly promising candidate.
The education secretary is the nation's highest-ranking education official, yet lacks a real portfolio. Elementary and secondary education is mainly a state and local function, and state and local governments provide most of the funds. In higher education the federal government provides more of the funds, primarily through student aid, but again its role is limited. It's hard to know in such a context and a period of fiscal restraint what a chief executive means when he says, as Mr. Bush did, that he wants to be known as an "education president." The good education secretaries are mainly advocates of higher standards, better performance and stronger support on the part of others.
No recent secretary has brought more impressive credentials to this task than Mr. Alexander. He led the effort of the nation's governors in the 1980s to trade higher funding of education for greater accountability by such means as independent assessment of pupil and teacher performance and merit pay. He understands the economic importance of an educated work force, a lesson all governors learn when they turn to the problems of economic development that all states share, and he has run a major university. An energetic moderate, he has the imagination and political savvy his predecessor unfortunately lacked, and should do well.
The Labor Department is one of the world's largest regulatory factories; it regulates everything from industrial chemicals to the financial soundness of pension funds. The job of secretary is not a showy one. Republican secretaries have the added problem of staying on reasonable terms with organized labor. This task will be all the harder if the budget stays tight, as the deficit reduction agreement between the president and Congress commands, preventing relief as the economy heads into recession. But Rep. Martin, who was a respected and rising member of the moderate wing of her party in the House, brings skills to the job; we expect she can navigate the shoals.