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San Diego Superintendent Brings Local Perspective to E.D. Post

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WASHINGTON--It might seem logical and obvious that the U.S. Education Department would find many of its top managers in the ranks of school administrators, given their job as the executives of precollegiate education.

In the department's 13 years of existence, however, only a handful of front-line educators have served in senior positions.

In fact, the Clinton Administration will make history by including two former school administrators in key posts--Thomas W. Payzant, who will leave the helm of the San Diego public schools to become the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, and Ramon C. Cortines, a former San Francisco superintendent who has been tapped to serve as the assistant secretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs.

"There really should be an attempt to staff the department with more field practitioners than exist over there,'' says John D. MacDonald, who served as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Bush Administration. "They need people with firsthand knowledge of the terrible problems that are out there.''

During his tenure, Mr. MacDonald was the only top agency offical to have made a career in the public schools, where he has been a teacher, a principal, a superintendent in two Massachusetts districts, and finally the chief state school officer in New Hampshire.

"The relationships I had built up over the years were very useful to the department,'' he says. "The whole reason they asked me to come to Washington was my background. They called me 'the real person.'''

Mr. Payzant also views himself as a representative of the local perspective.

"In large part, I'm here as part of the Secretary's team because I represent 30 years of working in schools and school districts,'' he says.

Many observers view Mr. Payzant and Mr. Cortines--both of whose nominations are expected to be approved by the Senate soon--as a particularly necessary counterweight in an agency that is "heavily weighted toward the state perspective,'' in the words of one lobbyist. Indeed, the department is led by two former governors: Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley (of South Carolina) and Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin (of Vermont).

"I think it will be helpful for urban schools in general to have one of their own inside the Administration giving voice to their concerns,'' says Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "Whether or not those concerns prevail is up to the process.''

Not Number One

A number of education groups had lobbied the Clinton Administration's transition team to appoint a respected administrator as Secretary, or, failing that, to the deputy's post. Mr. Payzant was one of their nominees.

For example, the National PTA, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the Council of the Great City Schools had jointly urged the transition team to appoint a deputy "from the local level'' who would represent "urban areas and the interests of minority groups,'' says Arnold Fege, the director of governmental relations for the PTA. Mr. Fege expresses disappointment at Ms. Kunin's appointment.

In the department's short history, no precollegiate educator has ever served as Secretary. The post has been held by a judge, two university professors, a university president, and two former governors.

Only one front-line educator has served in the agency's number-two slot: Linus Wright, a former superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, who served in the Reagan Administration. The position has also been held by one former chief state school officer, Ted Sanders.

Mr. Payzant will, however, be the fifth school administrator to become assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Thomas K. Minter, a former superintendent in Wilmington, Del., was the first to hold the post, under President Jimmy Carter. He was succeeded by Vincent Reed, a former superintendent in Washington, D.C.

Later in the Reagan Administration, the slot was filled by Beryl Dorsett, a former Chapter 1 director and curriculum coordinator in New York City, who was succeeded by Mr. MacDonald.

Impressed by Riley

Despite Mr. Payzant's nomination, his early backers were disappointed because the post has not traditionally been a power center for a member of the Secretary's inner circle.

Nonetheless, some acquaintances say the San Diegan has told them he would take a lead role for the Administration on the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Mr. Payzant would not comment on how much authority Mr. Riley had promised him.

"It's no secret that reauthorization of just about every program in elementary and secondary education will occur in the near future, so I see that as an enormous opportunity to be involved, and I'm sure I will be,'' he says.

Mr. Payzant says he was certainly not disappointed in his eventual post, and adds that he was not especially eager to step into a federal role. In fact, while associates had raised the possibility, Mr. Payzant says he did not even think seriously about a federal job, much less lobby for one.

"I was in San Diego 14 years, but I'm not convinced the work is done there and I was not looking for other things to do,'' he says. "I wasn't at all sure I wanted to go to Washington.''

Mr. Payzant says he agreed to come after spending several hours with Mr. Riley, who convinced him the former Governor "was a very special person with a very important agenda.''

He says he was particularly impressed by Mr. Riley's emphasis on trying to better coordinate the array of federal programs.

"He sees the necessity of bringing all the pieces together in a comprehensive way,'' Mr. Payzant says. "In San Diego, we have really focused on integrating the services children need to be productive learners.''

Chapter 1 Issues

Mr. Payzant says he cannot comment on specific policy issues until he is confirmed by the Senate. But he was among seven California superintendents who issued a position paper in February containing proposals for reauthorizing Chapter 1. While he would not say whether Mr. Riley agrees with those ideas, he notes that he is committed to pursuing them.

"I'm not going to shed that view in any way or modify my commitment to getting those issues on the table,'' he says.

Like the high-profile independent commission on Chapter 1, which late last year issued a broad set of recommendations for reform, the superintendents called for more narrowly targeting funds on needy schools; making entire schools eligible based solely on poverty, rather than having individual students qualify for services based on educational deprivation; and expanding the use of schoolwide projects, in which funds are used to improve a school overall, rather than for services specifically for Chapter 1 students.

"My experience in San Diego,'' Mr. Payzant says, "is that we ought to focus on the school, to use all resources to support schoolwide plans, to focus all the resources on how to improve teaching and learning, even without Chapter 1.''

He also calls assessment "the most daunting issue'' in the upcoming reauthorization, echoing widespread criticism of the program's current reliance on standardized tests to measure student achievement.

If the program is to move toward fostering mastery of "a more complex and sophisticated set of skills,'' he says, instruments used to assess student achievement must be "more performance-based.''

However, he acknowledges that the "development of these assessments is embryonic.''

"The question is,'' the assistant secretary-designate says, "what to do during the interim.''

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