The Senate confirmation hearing on former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander's appointment as secretary of education suggested that at long last the right person is in that job at the right time.

Jimmy Carter created the department to fulfill a political promise to his supporters in the National Education Association. His appointee, Judge Shirley M. Hufstedler, barely had time to set it up before Carter was voted out of office.

Ronald Reagan, who came to office promising to abolish Carter's handiwork, was nonplussed when his first secretary, Terrell H. Bell, launched the national school-reform effort with his "Nation at Risk" report detailing the shortcomings of American education. Bell's successor, William Bennett, used the job as a pulpit for his personal and highly controversial views on what schools should teach, what colleges should charge and even where college students should vacation. Both made their points, but their credibility in Congress and the education world was undercut by their lame attempts to defend the consistent shortchanging of education in the Reagan budgets.

Lauro Cavazos, who started in Reagan's last year and carried on into the Bush administration, brought no focus or agenda to the job and ceded control of education policy to White House staffers, who had plenty of other concerns on their minds.

That sad history explains in part why Alexander drew such a fervent bipartisan welcome from the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week. But there is more to it than that. As Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) told Alexander, "All the pieces are in place to move forward on education. What has been missing is the forceful advocacy to bring that priority to the Cabinet table, the Congress and the country. You have all the tools required to do that."

If a focused purpose combined with exceptional political and public-relations skills are the requisites, Dodd is probably correct. In his eight years as governor, Alexander launched a major school-reform effort that challenged the education bureaucracy, business and the taxpayers of his state -- and finally won the support of all three. As chairman of the National Governors Assn., he took the lead in getting all the governors committed to a continuing drive to set ambitious goals for education and measure their states' progress -- the agreement that was sealed at the "education summit" with President Bush in the autumn of 1989.

Because of those achievements, Alexander comes to the often-scorned Education Department job with remarkably -- perhaps dangerously -- high expectations. "I don't mind the high expectations," he told the committee, "because there are a lot of people around the country ready to move."

The potential for action starts inside the Bush administration. Alexander already has met with the new secretary of labor, Lynn Martin, who presides over a $4.5 billion job-training budget of her own. Personal and bureaucratic differences have kept the Labor and Education departments tugging against each other more often than they have combined forces. Martin, a former teacher and Illinois congresswoman, and Alexander match up in temperament and ability better than any two secretaries in the past.

Former Secretary of Labor Bill Brock, an informal adviser to both Alexander and Martin, says that their partnership could quickly spread to the other Cabinet members with a deep interest in, and large responsibilities for, the health and well-being of youngsters and the education and training of youths and adults. They include Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan and Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, both of whom have education backgrounds, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who shares with his wife, Lynne, the head of the National Endowment on Humanities, a burning interest in the quality of schools.

But the bigger potential benefit in Alexander's appointment is the synergy of state-federal action from having the Education chair filled by a former governor. The states are the senior partners in education policy and, as Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) pointed out at Alexander's hearing, they have been far more willing than Congress to consider radical changes in education practice in order to break out of the deadly mediocrity that ensnares far too many schools.

Gov. Bill Clinton (D) of Arkansas, Alexander's partner in many of the education enterprises of the '80s, remains a strong influence in the group. Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado, who has taken on the task of developing measurement systems for gauging progress toward the national-education goals, is a dogged battler. They have their hands full dealing with the congressional grandees who think Washington should drive education policy for the nation while paying only 8 percent of the bill.

Clinton and Romer welcome Alexander as an ally in that fight -- and even more as the catalyst for the Cabinet group that wants to make Bush live up to his claim to be the "education president."

Together, they just might make some things happen.