The name of the executive secretary of the Tennessee Education Association was misspelled in an story Sunday about Lamar Alexander, President Bush's nominee to be education secretary. The union leader's name is Cavit Cheshier. (Published 1/30/91)

KNOXVILLE, TENN. -- The day he was nominated to be education secretary, Lamar Alexander was given some basic advice by a former teacher he has known for half a century: his mother. On her mind was a published comment in which her son, dismissing his chances of being the nominee, had told a local newspaper, "It's not me."

Floreine Rankin Alexander, 76, caught up with her only son in his eighth-floor office at the University of Tennessee, where he has been president since 1988. "I said, 'If you're going to go about this country as secretary of education, you can't say, 'It's not me,' " she recalled. "It's 'not I.' "

A mother's correction of his grammar was a reminder of how Alexander came by his interest in improving education, the issue that made his reputation as Tennessee's governor from 1979 to 1987 and landed him a Cabinet nomination last month. Both his parents devoted time to schools in Maryville, Tenn., the town where he was raised in modest circumstances.

His late father, Andrew Lamar Alexander, was principal of a local elementary school until the birth of his first child and namesake. The elder Alexander then accepted a job as a safety engineer at a nearby aluminum plant, at twice his principal's salary, and served on the Maryville school board for almost 25 years.

"Flo" Alexander was something of a pioneer in early childhood education. Her private nursery school and kindergarten opened in a wooden garage in the family's backyard in the early 1940s, when preschools and kindergartens were uncommon. In the 1960s, she also helped persuade the local school board to open public kindergartens.

"He literally grew up in a house where education was very much part of the conversation," she said. "We were always interested in better schools."

Alexander's ability to inspire progress will be tested as the education secretary to President Bush, who will need his help to achieve the desired status of "education president." Lauro F. Cavazos, who quit under White House pressure last month, was widely seen as ineffective in using the post as a spokesman for education.

Alexander, 50, declined to discuss his specific plans until his Senate confirmation hearings, which are expected next month. But as a Cabinet secretary with little authority over schools and a limited budget, Alexander said he would launch a crusade to make Americans see educational deficiencies as urgent and requiring their attention.

"One of the things so frustrating about education is it's not something you can do to people," he said. "You have to somehow persuade them to do it for themselves."

Alexander said such a crusade led to Tennessee's passage of his better schools program in 1984, following a legislative rejection the previous year. Formation of a citizens task force in each school district, he said, "put the spotlight on the need for better schools, made the connections between better schools and better jobs, caused people to see we were way behind and had to really run to catch up, and that the world was changing."

The better schools program, financed by a half-cent increase in sales taxes, included merit pay for teachers, increased classroom use of computers and tougher mathematics and science requirements.

The merit pay plan, embraced by President Reagan and duplicated by several states, was a central provision. Cavit Cashier, executive secretary of the Tennessee Education Association, a teachers union, criticized the program as requiring cumbersome paperwork for a maximum bonus of $3,000 a year. Teachers can earn an additional $4,000 if they work two extra months.

Cashier said Tennessee schools even after Alexander's program have suffered from lack of attention to such basic concerns as manageable class size and money for textbooks and supplies. He suggested Alexander's greater contribution came in leading other governors to make education a priority.

In 1986, as chairman of the National Governors' Association, Alexander released an ambitious five-year program that concentrated on higher teacher pay, better school administration, parental choice of schools, preparation of at-risk students, educational technology and assessment of student learning in college.

"I think he probably more than any other governor pushed this agenda," said former Colorado governor Richard Lamm (D). "It's difficult to get the 50 governors to agree even on the Ten Commandments."

As education secretary, Alexander said he would pursue an agenda limited to two or three "strategic tracks." He did not identify them, but during a recent interview repeatedly discussed the skills of adult workers, scientific literacy and early childhood education.

Those issues are touched on in national education goals adopted by Bush and the governors. They concerned Alexander while governing a state that has lagged economically and educationally.

"The largest number of undereducated and underskilled people in America are the parents, not the children," Alexander said. "Helping the grownups go back to school might be a way not only to get our work force in better shape more immediately, but it might help the adults of America understand the urgency of what should be done for our children."

Alexander's Tennessee education package initially included mandatory kindergarten, and he remembers his mother's pioneering program. "Before early childhood education was a program, she was a big advocate," he said. "She would discover what are now called 'gifted children' {and} children with handicaps that their parents didn't even know about."

Alexander several times mentioned the need to upgrade the scientific literacy of Americans so that they could understand technological developments such as the Hubble space telescope.

Another issue that Alexander will confront early -- at his confirmation hearings -- is the Education Department's controversial and inconsistent policy on minority scholarships. Last month, Michael L. Williams, the assistant secretary for civil rights, ruled colleges in most cases could not reserve scholarships for minorities, but retreated after intense criticism and said such grants were permissible if funded by earmarked private donations.

Alexander has declined to state his views directly, but on the day of his nomination noted that such scholarships at the University of Tennessee have "helped minority students who were poor to get a college education." He also said: "And my general disposition would be that when you're wandering through constitutional thickets, that a warm heart and a little common sense sometimes are helpful."

In the interview, Alexander said he financed his undergraduate education at Vanderbilt University, where he majored in Latin American history, with academic scholarships, jobs and parental contributions.

Alexander cast himself as a moderate Republican in the tradition of East Tennessee residents who supported the Union during the Civil War. He said that his parents banned the telling of racial jokes in their house and, despite the prevailing racial segregation, black and white residents of his home town had respectful relations because both communities benefited from union wages at the aluminum plant where his father worked.

"A pronounced part of my growing up was respect for other people, regardless of race, and that's made a big difference in how I've always looked at things," Alexander said.

In handling tough policy questions such as minority scholarships, Alexander is likely to find it helpful that he has been friends with former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff. Cavazos suffered from a lack of respect from the White House staff, which often appeared to guide education policy.

The near-total acclaim that greeted his nomination has made Alexander wary of rising expectations.

"I worry a little bit that people expect that 'Well, here comes ol' Lamar to town, and within a few weeks, education is going to be reformed,' " he said. "Maybe I can be the spark plug, but I can't be much more than that. This is a long-haul enterprise, and it involves lots of people, and I'm not the primary actor, the president is. So I don't want people to expect too much, too soon."