New Beginnings in Education

December 20, 1990

Though somewhat clumsily, the Bush administration has partially defused the firestorm created by assistant secretary of education Michael L. Williams' unbidden charge into the realm of minority scholarships.

Attempting to extinguish widespread outrage over Mr. Williams' decision to bar universities from awarding such aid, Bush operatives effectively de-activated his new policy without reversing it completely. Mr. Williams had decided that scholarships aimed solely at non-whites violate that part of the Civil Rights Act which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. This has now been modified to bar only federal funds from this purpose. In other words, race-based scholarships are fine so long as they are bankrolled by non-federal sources.

This brouhaha began when Mr. Williams issued unsolicited advice to organizers of the Fiesta Bowl football game that their plan to set up minority scholarship funds wasn't permissible.

Even the administration's policy revision, critics predict, will unleash a deluge of court cases challenging race-based scholarships. Moreover, this exercise in face-saving still leaves the troubling notion that the assistant secretary was trying to interpret federal civil rights statutes in a manner consistent with the administration's campaign against programs affording special treatment to minorities. Race-based scholarships have been a successful tool in promoting racial diversity on campuses. Trying to eliminate them sends the wrong message at a time of declining non-white enrollments.

For all its clumsy handling of the scholarship affair, the administration has done a masterful job in selecting former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander to succeed Lauro F. Cavazos as secretary of education. Mr. Alexander, who during the 1980s helped launch the states on a wave of education reforms, brings solid credentials to a demanding, high-profile job that proved too much for his predecessor.

As chairman of the National Governors Association, Mr. Alexander won acclaim with education issues, pushing accountability and more front-line autonomy for teachers. As governor of Tennessee, he led the passage of a "Better Schools" program that provided merit pay to teachers, expanded kindergartens, computers for classroom use and increased the number of math and science teachers. Mr. Alexander, considered by many to be one of Mr. Bush's strongest cabinet nominees to date, is both forceful and imaginative, qualities that make him well suited to further Mr. Bush's goal of becoming the "education president."

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