Lamar Alexander, President Bush's nominee to be education secretary, is preparing to take command of a relatively small, young Cabinet department with a political mission that has in the past year outstripped its size and power.
Its mission has been clearly defined by six education goals for the year 2000 adopted by the self-described "education president" and the nation's governors. But already education leaders have grown impatient with pace of progress toward meeting them. Leadership from the federal government, they say, has been lacking.
Those goals are to get all preschoolers ready to learn; to lift the high school graduation rate from 71 percent to 90 percent; to improve academic competency in basic subjects; to raise U.S. students to the world's best in mathematics and science; to make every adult literate; and to rid every school of illegal drugs and violence.
Enter Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee who pushed school reforms, a former president of the National Governors' Association, current president of the University of Tennessee system and a moderate Republican whose nomination is expected to breeze through the Senate early next year.
The first thing Alexander should do, several education leaders urged last week, is to act on those education goals.
"I'd like to see him put together a plan on how we're going to meet the goals," said Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "What the federal government has to do, what state governments have to do, what local governments have to do, what educators have to do."
Robert H. Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,600 colleges, agreed. "He should and can concentrate principally on the K-12 problem, define the federal role a little better and pick up on those goals," he said.
"Right now, all we have is a set of goals, and we don't have much beyond them," said Samuel D. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 47 large urban districts.
If he pursues the education goals, Alexander can expect to encounter a limitation faced by four predecessors at the department, created in 1979. It has little authority to tell schools what to do and is explicitly forbidden to make decisions about curriculum.
As a result, the education leaders suggested that the former governor rely on his political skills to get the White House, Congress, governors and educators to reach a consensus on how to proceed. "This is somebody that people will listen to," Atwell said of Alexander.
Geiger said Alexander should focus on preschool readiness. The White House and governors have agreed to share this responsibility.
The new education secretary, Geiger said, could coordinate Head Start and other federal activities in child health and day care. Alexander told an education conference in Wichita, Kan., last year that early childhood education might begin when children are as young as 18 months.
To help lift academic achievement, other education leaders said Alexander ought to try to persuade Congress to loosen regulations on elementary and secondary programs, which primarily are directed at disadvantaged students.
Jeanne Allen, education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said schools "need more flexibility. How can they improve things if they are being told every second of the day what to do?"
Such deregulation was resisted by Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.), the outgoing chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. But it is one of the strategies the White House and governors have embraced. As chairman of the National Governors' Association, Alexander advocated looser state regulations in exchange for educational results from schools.
Raymond C. Scheppach, executive director of the governors association, also proposed a federal role in measuring progress toward meeting the goals. "We knew when we developed those goals that we didn't have the measurement tools to do it," he said.
Scheppach said the Education Department could help in creating a widely accepted definition of adult literacy and doing testing that could form the basis for international comparisons in math and science.
It might also fund the expensive development of new tests that better measure student progress in the more sophisticated skills demanded in the modern work force, he said.
Husk expressed confidence that Alexander has ample background in education to help get the nation's schools restructured for the next century. "He's got some experience under his belt that will tell him what will work and how we can proceed," he said.