FORMER Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander will start his new job as education secretary with a least one issue settled. He and President Bush agree that college scholarships aimed at minorities should be preserved. Last week's Education Department ruling that such scholarships were illegal has rightly been reversed. Since enhanced opportunity for blacks, Hispanics, and others who have traditionally been poorly served by the nation's schools remains a critical issue, it's auspicious, perhaps, that Mr. Alexander's association with the department begins on that note. The continued decrepit condition of many inner-city schools, and the continued high drop-out rate among minorities, ought to be an abiding concern.
The secretary designate, whose confirmation is virtually assured, moves into a post that should set the pace for Mr. Bush's domestic policies. The president has often affirmed that a stronger system of education is the key to competitiveness and progress. But under outgoing Secretary Lauro Cavazos, education lagged. Mr. Cavazos was personally respected and liked, but few ideas - other than greater choice of schools for parents - emanated from his department.
Alexander brings to the job a decade of front-line commitment to school reform. As governor, he worked tirelessly to push through an innovative program that included tough standards for the promotion of teachers and students. His determination to upgrade teachers' pay - based on a merit, career-ladder approach - brought him into conflict with the largest teachers' union, the National Education Association. But he weathered that storm, and others, and saw his program implemented.
As head of the National Governors' Association in the mid-1980s, he convinced others of the need to put education reform at the top of their agendas.
The United States is about to have a secretary of education who combines an ability to communicate, firsthand experience in education, and proven political skills. If anyone can move the administration's lofty goals for education toward realization, he can.