Education

Bush Announces Key Ed. Dept. Nominees

By Joetta L. Sack & Lisa Fine — June 26, 2001 6 min read
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President Bush has announced his selections to head the offices for civil rights and special education, two of the most watched positions in the Department of Education.

He intends to nominate Gerald Reynolds, the senior regulatory counsel for Kansas City Power and Light Co., to be the assistant secretary of education for civil rights, the White House announced June 25. That official enforces federal civil rights laws for schools and other educational institutions.

The White House a few days earlier had announced Mr. Bush’s intention to nominate Robert Pasternack, New Mexico’s state director of special education, to be the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. In that job, Mr. Pasternack, if confirmed by the Senate, will oversee the enforcement of federal special education laws and regulations. He would likely also play a role in the upcoming reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law.

In addition, the White House announced, Mr. Bush intends to nominate Joanne M. Wilson to become the commissioner of the Rehabilitative Services Administration, a division of the special education office.

The White House has now announced the nominations of 12 of the top 15 officials at the Education Department. However, only Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Deputy Secretary William D. Hansen have been confirmed by the Senate, and it could be months before the others are officially granted permission to begin their jobs. Until they receive Senate confirmation, the nominees cannot perform the duties of their new jobs but may act as consultants to the secretary. Some observers estimate it could be next year before all the department’s top officials are in place.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said June 26 that the members were planning to consider the nominations as quickly as possible but that there were other competing issues on the committee’s schedule.

Mr Reynolds, 38, was the president and legal counsel from 1997 to 1998 for the Center for New Black Leadership, a Washington-based group that promotes school choice, and he has continued to serve on its board of directors. He was also a legal analyst for the Center for Equal Opportunity from 1995 to 1997. The Washington research and public-policy group—headed by Linda Chavez, who was President Bush’s initial choice to be secretary of labor— is well known for its criticism of affirmative action and bilingual education.

Mr. Reynolds received his law degree from Boston University and graduated from the City University of New York at York College.

As assistant secretary for civil rights, Mr. Reynolds would be charged with ensuring that schools and colleges comply with federal civil rights laws, including requirements on race and gender equity and access for people with disabilities. The office for civil rights, whose role has often come under attack from conservatives, investigates charges of discrimination and provides technical assistance to institutions to help them comply with federal laws.

The announcement of Mr. Reynolds’ appointment follows President Bush’s nomination of Brian Jones, another conservative African-American, to become the chief legal counsel for the Education Department. Perceptions of Mr. Jones’ and Mr. Reynolds’ views and relative inexperience have generated concern among some liberals and could hinder confirmation by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“We need to get some more information, but on the face of it, that is a very troubling nomination,” William L. Taylor, a veteran civil rights lawyer in Washington, said of the selection of Mr. Reynolds. “It’s quite extraordinary that Mr. Bush, who says he cares about education, uses the Education Department as a parking lot for ideological zealots,” said Mr. Taylor, who is the acting chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a private watchdog group.

Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for Mr. Paige, asked about that characterization of Bush appointees, said the administration has identified well-qualified people interested “in giving every kid access to a quality education.”

Advocacy for Special Education

Meanwhile, New Mexico education officials applauded the selection of Mr. Pasternack, 53, for the Education Department’s chief position in special education. He has been the state’s director of special education since January 1998. Under his leadership, the state developed an alternative assessment for students with disabilities and helped improve early-intervention services for young children.

“His advocacy has resulted in increased parent involvement and the development of initiatives to improve results for special-needs children,” said Michael J. Davis, New Mexico’s state superintendent of public instruction. “Just as New Mexico’s special education students have benefited tremendously from his efforts, so too will students from throughout the country as he assumes his new role.”

New Mexico officials said Mr. Pasternack, who is the guardian of his adult brother who has Down syndrome, has been a pioneer in the kinds of accountability efforts being championed by the Bush administration.

He has also helped New Mexico make strides in early intervention efforts geared toward maintaining many students in regular education later on, observers in the state said. For example, he pushed the state to adopt the category of “developmental delay” for children from birth to age 9, a designation that entitles children to early services, and he developed early-literacy programs in school districts’ full-day kindergartens.

Mr. Pasternack’s personal interest in improving the rights of people with disabilities makes him a good choice for the position as well, advocates said.

“I’ve never seen him not talk to people or turn them away if they have concerns,” said Doris Husted, public policy director for ARC of New Mexico, a statewide advocacy organization for people with disabilities. “He is most responsive to families. Being a family member himself of a person with a disability, he is a believer that schools should produce and be accountable, and that they should be listening to what families want out of those schools.”

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., wrote a letter Feb. 5 to President Bush recommending Mr. Pasternack’s nomination.

“Robert has dedicated a lifetime to assisting those in need, and I can think of no better candidate for the job of assistant secretary for special education,” Mr. Domenici wrote in the letter. “In addition to his outstanding academic credentials, Robert has compiled an impressive professional record that has had a significant impact on thousands of New Mexico’s education special education students.”

Before his government work, Mr. Pasternack served as the chief executive officer of Casa de Corazon, a children’s comprehensive community-mental-health center. He also served as the director of clinical services for Taos/Colfax Community Services Inc. and as the superintendent of the New Mexico Boys’ School. Mr. Pasternack holds a Ph.D. in special education from the University of New Mexico and an M.A. in guidance and counseling from New Mexico Highlands University.

President Bush also tapped Ms. Wilson, the founder and director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind and a former teacher of blind students, to run the Rehabilitative Services Administration. That arm of the Education Department oversees efforts by state and local agencies to provide programs that enable individuals with disabilities to obtain employment.

Ms. Wilson, 54, serves as a consultant to the Connecticut Board of Education and Services for the Blind, the New Jersey Orientation and Adjustment Center for the Blind, and the New York Commission for the Blind.

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