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PRESIDENT BUSH has plucked a promising politician-educator out of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, to head the U.S. Department of Education, a choice that we hope presages greater vigor and attention for education programs in the Bush administration.

Alexander, 50, a former two-term governor who shook up the education establishment in his "Volunteer State" with bold reforms, succeeds Lauro F. Cavazos, a Reagan holdover appointee who resigned under pressure.

Alexander brings to the job and to Washington abundant strengths, several of which Cavazos lacked, and can be expected to revitalize efforts to redeem Bush's 1988 campaign pledge to become the "education president."

His greatest strength, however, is combining an understanding of educational needs and issues with the political talents and can-do energy that tackles difficult problems with determination and relish.

A lawyer and the son of teachers, Alexander served in Washington years ago as a Senate aide and congressional liaison in the Nixon White House. He understands Congress and its operations.

But he built his reputation as governor of Tennessee with his energetic support for comprehensive changes in the school system, including still-controversial annual bonuses for teachers who excel in classroom performance. As governor, he also pushed through a one-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for the educational reforms.

As president of the University of Tennessee for three years, Alexander has acquired a knowledge of campus problems as well. He has worked to elevate academic standards. He appointed the first black and first woman vice presidents at the university. Discussing Alexander's awareness of higher-education problems and policies, Gov. Bill Clinton, an Arkansas Democrat, said: "He knows what we're up against."

Alexander, whose appointment remains subject to Senate confirmation, will take the helm of a federal department criticized for too much silence and too little effect.

Under the influence of his thought and drive, that may change very quickly. It should.

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