EDUCATION : Alexander Begins Reign With a Flurry of Activity : In just a few weeks, he has brought in an action-oriented team. Strategists predict the President's image on schools will improve.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the 1992 election season draws nearer, newly appointed Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander is moving quickly to help President Bush fulfill a promise he made in the 1988 campaign but then largely ignored: Bush's vow to become the nation's "Education President."

In just a few short weeks--starting even before he won Senate confirmation--Alexander has cleared out most of the senior Department of Education officials loyal to former Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos. He has replaced them with his own, more action-oriented team.

Alexander has also put together a new education agenda that includes a controversial proposal for instituting national achievement tests and more emphasis on adult learning and training for the work force. Bush himself is expected to unveil the package next week.

That galloping start has drawn favorable attention from some of the Administration's harshest critics, including Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a member of the House Education Committee.

"These people have the ability and they also have the background to engage these issues as well as any group of people we've seen in the Department of Education in a long time," Miller said recently.

And Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Assn., who has often been at odds with Alexander in the past, says "I'm pleased" with the new official's initial moves in Washington.

Alexander himself is confident that he can do the job. "Education is moving to center stage in America," he told Education Department employees last month as he took over the agency's helm.

The personnel selections so far have been impressive by any measure.

Xerox Chairman David T. Kearns, one of corporate America's leading advocates for improving education, has agreed to become the department's No. 2 official--giving up a job that paid $1.3 million in 1989 to take one that offers a salary of $125,000.

Last week, Stephen I. Danzansky, Bush's director of Cabinet affairs, moved to the department from the White House to become Alexander's chief of staff.

Alexander also plans to appoint Diane Ravitch, a noted education historian and researcher, as assistant secretary of educational research and improvement. While Ravitch has little administrative experience, she is widely respected in the field.

And Alexander has kept--and given new responsibilities to--Deputy Secretary Ted Sanders, a highly regarded former superintendent of schools in Illinois and Nevada.

The flurry of activity stands in sharp contrast to the tenure of Cavazos, who was widely viewed as one of the Cabinet's most ineffectual members.

When Cavazos drew attention, it was usually for political blunders. His plan last December to bar colleges from awarding scholarships based on race eventually got him fired by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.

In replacing Cavazos, Bush selected a charismatic and seasoned political leader who had made a name for himself in the education field both as governor and as president of the University of Tennessee. His Better Schools program for the state included a new merit pay system for teachers, tougher standards for students and more emphasis on science, computers and mathematics.

But critics question whether Alexander's leadership alone will be enough. "I think the ideas and the rhetoric are all terrific," one key official says. "I don't think they have thought through how to implement it, and that's going to come back and bite them."

One overriding consideration is where the Administration will be able to find the money to carry out any meaningful proposals in this field. Fiscal analysts say that, with the overall budget situation tight, it's unlikely that Bush will be able to channel more than token funds to new programs.

Any significant effort to expand education programs will likely bring Alexander into conflict with one of the most effective in-fighters in Washington: Richard G. Darman, head of the Administration's budget office.

"You're not going to see in the rest of this Administration some new commitment to funding," says Robert Hochstein, an official of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "It's just not in the cards."

Even so, campaign strategists predict that the politically attuned Alexander at least will be able to polish Bush's tarnished image in the field. "I think these people are going to stir the pot," the House Education Committee's Rep. Miller asserts.

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