A Study in Contrasts: Education Appointees Under Bush, Reagan Differ in Policy, Attitude

By Julie A. Miller — April 25, 1990 9 min read

“Political appointments are still political appointments,” he said. “They haven’t selected Johnson Democrats to head the Education Department.”

Over the past year, President Bush and Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos have quietly assembled a team of top-level education officials that differs markedly from those appointed under the Reagan Administration.

These personnel choices symbolize the differences in policy and attitude between the two Republican Administrations.

And they have gone a considerable way toward defrosting the chilly relationship between the executive branch and the edu6cation community that characterized the 1980’s.

For the first time in a decade, education circles here are not abuzz with complaints about Administration officials alleged to have ideological axes to grind or no expertise in the field.

“The Secretary and the President have substantially strengthened the top leadership of the Education Department,” said Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “They have brought into service people in key positions who are very experienced in the field of education, understand education policy and policymaking, understand the way the education system operates.”

The White House may even be on the verge of installing all its top-level education nominees without a hint of challenge from the Senate, which must confirm them.

No major objections have been raised to the choice of Michael L. Williams to head the office for civil rights, the final post to be filled, a Democratic aide on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee said last week.

A hearing may be held on the nomination, the aide said, to send a cautionary message to the Administration by repeating longstanding Congressional criticisms of the OCR’s enforcement record.

But the aide said senators are considering acting without a hearing. And if that happens, the Administration will have accomplished the remarkable feat of filling the top-level slots in education without any Senate hearings at all.

The only exception is Mr. Cavazos himself, who was originally appointed by President Reagan and was warmly received by the committee.

“The people they’ve sent up are people who know the issues, who have been around awhile and are not stepping into unknown territory when they take the job,” the Labor and Human Resources aide said. “They have proposed first-rate people.”

Added Gregory Humphrey, director of legislation for the American Federation of Teachers, “None of the people who have been appointed have made us want to go up [to Capitol Hill] and oppose them.”

The Labor and Human Resources panel held hearings on most of President Reagan’s education appointees, even during the four-year period when Republicans controlled the Senate. While no nominees were actually rejected, many were not exactly given a free ride.

At confirmation hearings in 1985 for former Secretary William J. Bennett, for example, senators grilled him about his refusal to comply with affirmative-action regulations as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and about the sincerity of his commitment to a federal role in education.

In 1983, Wendy Borchert gave up her quest for the post of deputy undersecretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs when her nomination got tied up in the committee. Several senators were concerned about her alleged role in the dismissal of members of a national advisory panel on women when she was a White House adviser, as well as her opposition to the Women’s Educational Equity Act program.

In 1981, former Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut, held up the nomination of Jean Tufts, later confirmed as assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, because he doubted her commitment to upholding the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

Over the past year, in contrast, education advocates have been nearly unanimous in praising the “pragmatism” of the Bush-Cavazos appointees. The Secretary has earned credit in this area even from those who criticize him for what they say is a lack of focus and leadership.

‘Mainstream Qualifications’

The current officials “are more mainstream in their qualifications and experience, more pragmatic, more interested in the programs” than were the Reagan appointees, said Edward R. Kealy, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.

Some appointees “are more attuned to the White House” than others, he added, “but even the White House is not so ideological now.”

“These appointees are much less antagonistic toward education as a federal enterprise than the Reagan appointees were,” Mr. Humphrey said. “I think most would agree there is a federal role in education, and it is their job to do it as well as they can; I know I wouldn’t say that about most of the Reagan appointees.”

Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association, added: “The attitude is that there are differences between the department and the education community, but there are also areas of agreement, and we should try to work together.”

Mr. Ambach characterized the Bush-Cavazos team as “very thoughtful about education, about how to use the power of the federal government to improve education.”

“This has lifted morale within the department, which was way down,” he continued. “They are definitely giving the department a sense that it has an important mission.”

Attempted Sabotage?

During the Reagan years, most of the prominent spokesmen for education interests were at odds with conservative officials they believed were trying to sabotage the Education Department’s mission.

In a memoir published in 1987, Mr. Reagan’s first Secretary of Education, Terrel H. Bell, confirmed that some of these fears were well-founded. He said that he had been forced by “movement conservatives” at the White House to accept some of their allies as high-level education officials, and that these officials had tried to undermine his authority and some of the department’s programs.

Other unabashed conservatives were later added to the department, of whom Gary L. Bauer may be the most notable.

Mr. Bauer, who became Mr. Reagan’s domestic-policy adviser in 1987 after serving as deputy undersecretary and then undersecretary of education, was a political operative with no previous experience in education or the federal bureaucracy. He now heads the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group.

In contrast, Michelle Easton, a Reagan holdover now serving as deputy undersecretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs, is the only current department appointee to have worked for conservative lobbying organizations.

And only two list Republican political work on their resumes: Thomas Anfinson, deputy undersecretary for management, and Nancy M. Kennedy, assistant secretary for legislation.

Education Expertise

Ideological concerns aside, many education advocates say, the Bush appointees as a group have more impressive credentials than their predecessors, some of whom had little or no experience relevant to the jobs they were appointed to.

“They are people with significant experience--senior [Congressional] staff, state commissioners of education, previous top-level appointees,” Mr. Kealy of the nsba said.

Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, chose as an example John T. MacDonald, the new assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Mr. MacDonald, who was New Hampshire’s education commissioner and has served as superintendent of three different school districts, “is a lifelong educator” who boasts a “distinguished career,” Mr. Hunter said.

“Compare him with anyone else who’s sat in that seat recently,” he said, “and you’ll get night and day.”

Critics of the qualifications of Mr. MacDonald’s predecessor, Beryl Dorsett, recall Democratic Senator Paul Simon’s remark at her 1987 confirmation hearing: “To move from being an assistant principal to administering a $5-billion program is a big jump.”

Other Bush Administration appointees who have come with widely praised credentials include Undersecretary Ted Sanders, a former state school chief in Illinois and Nevada; Robert R. Davila, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, who has had a long career as a teacher of the deaf; and Rita Esquivel, a veteran school-district administrator and teacher who heads the office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs.

Lack of an Agenda?

Not everyone is happy about the Bush appointees’ education credentials and more cooperative attitude.

“I look at them as practitioners, with more specific experience in education rather than a broader outlook on education reform,” said Jeanne Allen, an education analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“That might be fine to handle programs and have a nitty-gritty knowledge of them,” she said. “But if they don’t have an agenda, that makes it hard for the Administration to have any new ideas.”

“Under Bennett,” she continued, “they were all working toward an agenda, and that’s what political appointees are supposed to do.”

“We’ve seen what happens when you include people with education credentials on advisory committees or in forming polices,” Ms. Allen added. “Nothing much happens.”

The Administration’s final nominee for a top slot, Mr. Williams, the assistant secretary-designate for civil rights, is slated to succeed the Reagan appointees most often charged with lacking credentials. None of the officials who headed the office for civil rights under Mr. Reagan--Clarence Thomas, Harry Singleton, and LeGree S. Daniels--had any direct experience in civil-rights law.

Civil-rights advocates said last week that they knew little about Mr. Williams, but were encouraged by his experience prosecuting civil-rights cases while a lawyer at the Justice Department.

“I’ve heard good things from people who worked with him when he was in the criminal division” of Justice’s civil-rights branch, said Elliot Minceberg, who is investigating his background for the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way.

Still, a number of advocates said, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Williams can make headway at the OCR.

That wait-and-see attitude may be in order for all the Bush education appointees, caution many Washington-based education spokesmen.

Citing the modest education initiatives in Mr. Bush’s budget proposal, they say it is unclear whether the Administration’s promising lineup will in fact move in new directions.

“It’s going to take a while to assess how effectively these people, both as individuals and as a team, are going to perform,” Mr. Edwards said.

“Political appointments are still political appointments,” he said. “They haven’t selected Johnson Democrats to head the Education Department.”