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Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as Education Department Taking 'Reinvention' Seriously

Education Department Taking 'Reinvention' Seriously

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When the Clinton administration vowed to "reinvent" the federal government in 1993, the Department of Education took notice.

Since Vice President Al Gore issued the mandate for a leaner, more efficient, and more innovative government in April of that year, the department has tried to focus on remedies ranging from cutting the size of the agency to eliminating unnecessary regulations, according to Steven Moore, the "reinvention" coordinator in the Education Department's office of the deputy secretary.

"This is a period of tremendous change," Mr. Moore said in a recent interview. "And all of it has been progressive."

The impact on schools of all that change is still a matter of debate, but within the federal agency the tone is upbeat.

Since 1993, the department has reduced the size of its staff by 11 percent, from 5,131 employees to 4,560 employees today, largely through an incentive-based early-retirement program, as well as employee attrition. In addition, the department has eliminated, phased out, or consolidated 64 education programs.

What's more, in June 1995, there were 2,164 pages of Education Department regulations. Since then, federal officials say they have eliminated 714 pages of rules and simplified another 694. Of special interest to schools, 67 percent of the regulations covering elementary and secondary education programs have been eliminated.

"So far, we've felt that we've done the right things. It will take some time to measure or conclude whether we need to do more," Mr. Moore said. "Change is difficult, but also a tremendous opportunity for improvement."

Impact on Districts

But the transition had its challenging moments.

In May 1993, the General Accounting Office published areport, "Long-Standing Management Problems Hamper Reforms," that highlighted a weak commitment to effective management in the Education Department prior to Vice President Gore's reinvention announcement.

That same year, the department conducted an employee survey that identified a need to overhaul areas such as workplace services, technology, and personnel services.

With all the recent changes, the big question is what kind of impact the much-ballyhooed reinvention is having outside the Education Department offices.

"Overall, we have seen some areas of improvement, " said David Kysilko, a spokesman for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. For instance, "the continuing-application process for grants seems to be simplified. ... There's not a lot of unnecessary paperwork," he said, referring to the process for reapplying for funding in the years after first receiving a grant.

One area that continues to be a concern for the NSBA, however, is what it terms a lack of administrative support within the Education Department. If there aren't enough workers to handle grant applications and other needs in a timely manner, processes and services for districts can bog down, Mr. Kysilko said.

"Nothing's perfect. There are 16,000 school districts in the country, [the Education Department] has a formidable task," said Robert McCord, the deputy assistant superintendent of the 191,000-student Clark County, Nev., schools, a booming district that includes Las Vegas.

But Mr. McCord said he has noticed an improvement in the department's overall relationship with local districts. That, in turn, gives district administrators a sense that they can make an impact on federal policy.

"We've noticed a genuine effort on behalf of [the department] to make contact with local districts," Mr. McCord said. He noted that Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has visited his district three times in the past three years, spending time with students and learning about the district's programs. "We appreciate it. ... He gives us energy," Mr. McCord said.

Only a D-Minus

Under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, which Congress passed to measure federal agencies' reinvention efforts, each agency must submit a strategic plan to Congress that explains what the agency is trying to accomplish and why.

In April, the House Education and the Workforce Committee reviewed 24 agencies' strategic plans. The Education Department received the third-highest marks out of all of those reviewed, scoring a total of 61 points out of 100.

But that is still no cause for celebration, a member of the committee staff said.

"The Clinton administration should not take any pride in that [score]," said Jay Diskey, the communications director for the committee. "We would have liked to have seen better scores."

Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the committee, said in a news release that receiving a 61 was the equivalent of a D-minus.

The committee rated each agency in four areas: goals (30 points), strategies (30), validation, or how to measure and assess goals and strategies (30), and presentation (10).

The committee's review also found that it was not always clear how particular processes would help achieve the program's goal.

Even so, the department appears to be taking the committee's findings in stride.

"We welcome any constructive criticism," said Julie Green, a spokeswoman for the department. "However, we believe that focusing on the scoring itself is a distraction from the real work at hand."

Vol. 17, Issue 38, Pages 17-18

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Correction: 
This article misidentified David Kysilko as a spokesman for the National School Boards Association. He is a spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education.

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