President Bush yesterday nominated Lamar Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee who during the 1980s helped launch the states on a wave of education reforms, to be secretary of education.

Congressional and education leaders reacted favorably to his nomination and said they expect Alexander, president of the University of Tennessee system since 1988, to be a more visible and vocal advocate than the man he succeeds, Lauro F. Cavazos, who resigned less than a week ago under White House pressure.

Bush's selection of Alexander, following the nomination last week of Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.) as labor secretary, fills the two Cabinet vacancies that have occurred as the president approaches midterm. He presented both nominees at a White House briefing.

"No governor in the country is so clearly identified with the movement to improve education," Bush said, describing Alexander as "at the forefront of the movement to restructure our nation's schools."

Alexander, 50, said one of his goals will be improving adult education to make American workers more competitive, and recalled what a union organizer told him about workers coming to a General Motors plant that he had lured to Tennessee while serving as governor.

Their first question, he said, was, "Where can I go back to school?' " and the second was, "Where can I get good schools for my children?"

Perhaps Alexander's best-known achievement as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987 was the passage in 1984 of a "Better Schools" program that provided merit pay to teachers -- a strategy that President Ronald Reagan embraced in his reelection campaign that year.

The merit pay plan, which the Tennessee Education Association opposed, netted a teacher as much as $7,000 and was financed by a 1-cent increase in sales taxes. The education package also expanded kindergartens, classroom use of computers and the supply of mathematics and science teachers.

But it was as chairman of the National Governors Association that Alexander, the son of school teachers and a lawyer by training, won national identification with education issues. In 1986, he presented a report entitled, "Time for Results," which outlined an ambitious set of proposals that established governors as the nation's leaders in improving schools. His comments then accepted states' primary responsibility for financing improvements.

"We know it takes money," he said. "We assume it's our responsibility, and we're prepared to do most of it on our own."

At the time, Alexander also endorsed deregulating education, a strategy that has since become gospel for the governors and Bush administration, but one that has been opposed by Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.), outgoing chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Alexander said states should give teachers more freedom in "some old-fashioned horse-trading. We'll regulate less, if schools and school districts will produce better results."

Since moving to Knoxville, where he has overseen four University of Tennessee campuses, Alexander has been an advocate of more testing and improving math and science education by easing the certification process for teachers.

In 1987, Alexander chaired a panel that urged then-Education Secretary William J. Bennett to seek approval for expanding the National Assessment of Educational Progress, congressionally-mandated tests given to a sample of students, so that comparable data for individual states would be available for the first time. Congress later permitted a voluntary expansion that will produce math scores for most states next year.

Last year, Alexander and Energy Secretary James D. Watkins announced a joint teacher-training project for retired technicians and scientists or engineers seeking second careers. The department and the University of Tennessee also announced a five-year program for prospective science teachers that would include summer research projects at national laboratories.

But his record as governor is what generated the most favorable reaction yesterday from congressional and education leaders.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings on Alexander, said he "has a distinguished record in education and earned bipartisan respect for his role in stimulating education reform in the states."

Through a spokesman, Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), incoming chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Alexander has been an active advocate for education who appreciates its relationship to international competitiveness.

"Alexander was in every sense an education governor," said Robert H. Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization of higher education groups. "He is articulate to the point of being eloquent. He is going to have a high profile, and I assume he will have good access to the president."

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised Alexander for winning public support for higher teacher pay in his home state and said "he's likely to provide leadership" at the department.

A few contrary words came from the Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union. He restated a preference for "someone with hands-on classroom experience" but predicted Alexander would be "more visible and more vocal" than Cavazos.

Martin was in Illinois when Bush announced her selection Friday as his choice to succeed Elizabeth Hanford Dole. Introducing her at the news conference along with Alexander, Bush said that "working Americans have a friend in Lynn Martin, and she understands the challenges facing our work force."

Martin made a brief statement, saying that she looked "forward to making sure that the future of the American worker is even brighter," and answered a few questions. But she said she would not comment on specifics until her Senate confirmation hearings in late January or February.

The AFL-CIO has greeted Martin's nomination coolly, saying she failed to show "sensitivity" to workers' needs during her five terms in the House. Business groups, on the other hand, were quick to praise her nomination.

She said yesterday she looked forward to working with organized labor. "And I think we'll have a very productive relationship," she said, adding that she also "looked forward to working with individuals who may not be represented by a particular union."

Martin, who gave up her House seat to make an unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), has a lifetime voting score of 29 percent from the AFL-CIO. Last session, the union said Martin voted against workers on child care and civil rights legislation but voted "right" on mandatory parental leave legislation.

On minimum wage legislation, she voted for an amendment that would have crippled the bill, but later voted as the AFL-CIO wanted -- to override Bush's veto of the bill.

Staff writer Maralee Schwartz contributed to this report