WASHINGTON -- The White House decided yesterday to reverse a controversial federal policy that would have prevented schools from offering scholarships on the basis of race.
The move came as President Bush named former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander as the successor to Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, who resigned the day the scholarship policy was announced by his department.
White House officials who forced Mr. Cavazos to resign had complained that he had not been dynamic enough in improving American education -- an issue that Mr. Bush has said is one of his top priorities.
Mr. Alexander, 50, who earned a national reputation for promoting an overhaul of public schools by raising standards for students and teachers, was chosen in part because he also
is considered to have the political finesse needed to get the right Bush message across.
But his first chore -- extracting the Bush administration from the political mess caused by a mid-level policy decision to withhold federal funds from schools that award minority scholarships -- already has been dealt with, White House officials said.
The president, who aides said first learned of the decision by reading about it in the newspapers, was described by his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, as "very disturbed about the ruling."
"He does believe that minority scholarships have been important for economic growth and development . . . and for ensuring opportunity for all Americans to get a good education," Mr. Fitzwater said.
Mr. Bush ordered the Education Department to review the policy, hisspokesman said, adding that a new ruling was expected shortly.
Other White House officials said the policy would be reversed.
Michael L. Williams, chief of the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights and author of the new policy, scheduled a news briefing this morning that was described by one White House official as "face-saving."
Mr. Alexander, who has been serving as president of the University of Tennessee since 1988, refused to take a position on the department ruling that "race-exclusive" scholarships are discriminatory, saying he would withhold specific views until his Senate confirmation hearings.
But he told reporters that he had seen, "in a number of cases, how it's helped minority students who were poor to get a college education. . . . 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."
The scholarship ruling provoked a storm of criticism from civil rights and education leaders on the same day Mr. Cavazos resigned under fire, but the two events were not directly linked, said White House officials, who called the timing a coincidence.
In fact, there was said to be strong support for the policy change among some conservative adminis tration officials who believe the "no quotas" issue could have broad political appeal.
But the fact that such a controversial policy could be undertaken without prior White House approval was cited by White House officials as an example of the lack of leadership in the Education Department under Mr. Cavazos that had inspired widespread criticism of his tenure and his ultimate dismissal.
In Mr. Alexander, a two-term governor and activist leader of the National Governors Association, the White House believes it has found a replacement with the ability to give new life to Mr. Bush's moribund goal of being recorded as the "education president."
Initial reaction to the appointment from education groups was generally favorable.
Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, called Mr. Alexander "one of the best people in the country" in terms of background and understanding of education and a "thoughtful, moderate Republican."
The National Education Association said it was disappointed that Mr. Bush had not selected an education secretary with classroom experience but promised to work with him to achieve the national goals set at an education summit last year.