Lamar Alexander is a commendable choice for education secretary. While governor of Tennessee he was a true education governor, galvanizing the legislature to lift his state from the cellar in educational ratings.
The events of the past week have demonstrated clearly just how important it is for the department to have a politician at the helm. The disaster of a bureaucrat with a literal mind and a word processor -- in this case, Assistant Secretary Michael L. Williams, who issued a decree that scholarships for blacks in some circumstances are unconstitutional -- was totally avoidable. His superior should have handed back the paper, with orders to take it to the shredder and never mention it again.
The fact that Williams took that stand is not to be wondered at. Education bureaucrats are notorious for their officiousness and their eagerness to "fix what ain't broke." The remarkable thing is that the president dithered for a week before revising the order. Perhaps in constitutional theology Williams was right. But as columnist William Raspberry said, it was "gratuitousness" that was so wounding. The whole goal in U.S. education is to get even; that is, how to bring totally deprived children to the point where they can compete with children from homes where they are valued and taught.
Bush whined that Williams was not a racist. Nobody said he was, but if he was ambitious, he had to know that the administration has been fooling around on the race question. Jesse Helms hit bingo with "quota" charges in his campaign, and William J. Bennett, in his fleeting designation as the next GOP national chairman, enthusiastically seconded the motion. The ukase on scholarships seems to have come from the same stream of consciousness.
Bush couldn't come out and condemn it straightaway. Some think it was an excess of misdirected gentility. Williams is a pal of George W. Bush, and the president would rather offend 30 million blacks than an old friend of the family. Blacks are not amused when they hear about a "colorblind society" -- a laugh to those who remember slavery, Jim Crow laws and raw prejudice.
We can assume that Lamar Alexander, who is experienced in the political wars, would have seen the whole thing for the Big Muddy it is.
We can hope that he will correctly identify the crisis in education today, which has not to do with blacks maybe getting an undue share of scholarships. It's at the beginning of the process, among inner-city children, who never have a chance in school and end up on drugs, in jail or dead before their time.
We can hope that he will appropriate the proposal of John Silber, the president of Boston University who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts. Silber is a difficult man -- impossible, Bay State voters decided just before they went to the polls -- but he is a superb educator. He was one of a handful of pioneers who helped create the Great Society breakthrough program, Head Start. He has grasped the essential fact about the crippling effect of poverty on young minds, about parents who simply do not have the capacity, or the time, or the will, to nurture their children, to talk to them, play with them, sing to them and give them a sense of their worth.
"They come in behind, and they never catch up," Silber said then, and has never been proved wrong.
Alexander should go to Chelsea, Mass., where Silber's new idea of wraparound day care -- year-round, daylong -- for kindergarten children is being operated. Chelsea, one of the poorest localities in the state, also is one of the stingiest with its schools, which have been taken over by BU. The Early Learning Center opens at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. every working day. The cost of the program, $60 a month per child, is borne by BU.
The project now is limited to 5-year-olds. Silber wants to bring in ages 3 and 4. Anyone who knows anything about the problems of urban schools, and the increasing violence of urban life, knows that massive intervention is needed. Nothing less can reduce the awful progression of dropouts, teen pregnancy, drug use and gunplay.
It seems strange to look to the secretary of education to help make our cities habitable. But unless the government is willing to baby-sit thousands of children and coax them into learning, sharing, listening and reasoning, we're in for it. We'll have chaos, gunfire and crack babies -- and the much greater cost of keeping the victims in hospitals or prisons.
Alexander was a tiger about education reform in Tennessee. He is one of those southern governors who knew that the renaissance of a state begins in the classroom. Maybe he will understand how cities are reborn, too.