Clinton’s Search for Education Advice: ‘Coals to Newcastle’

By Julie A. Miller — October 14, 1992 9 min read

Asked in a January interview to name the experts whom he turns to for advice on education, Bill Clinton said he had no formal advisers. Instead, the Arkansas Governor rattled off a diverse list of educators and policy analysts whose work he said had influenced his own thinking.

Now that Mr. Clinton is the Democratic nominee for President, his campaign has set up a mechanism--albeit a fairly informal one--through which educational advice is sought and assimilated. In addition, several people within Mr. Clinton’s inner circle have expertise in education.

The identity of Mr. Clinton’s advisers may provide clues about the issues and policies he would pursue as President and even whom he might appoint to federal posts.

However, individuals included in the advisory loop universally maintain that Mr. Clinton’s operation is more a search for the best available current information than a traditional candidate’s effort to stake out positions on previously unconsidered questions.

“It’s like bringing coals to Newcastle,’' said Marshall S. Smith, the dean of Stanford University’s school of education. “The bottom line is, Bill and Hillary Clinton both know a heck of a lot about education, and they’ve been talking with people for 12 years about education.’'

Insiders also stress that Mr. Clinton’s education network, developed over a decade of work on education issues in his state and nationally, is far broader than the relatively short list of people directly involved with the campaign.

“The thing about the way this campaign has operated on education issues is that it is the longer list, rather than the shorter list, that more accurately reflects the way Clinton’s thinking has evolved,’' said Michael Cohen, the education-issues director for the campaign and the coordinator of the formal advice-gathering effort.

Mr. Cohen speaks for the campaign on education topics and has debated Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander on television. But he is an unpaid volunteer who remains co-director of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, a program of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

He first met Mr. Clinton in 1985, when he was engaged in providing technical assistance to states on education reform as the director of policy development and planning at the National Association of State Boards of Education.

In 1990, when Mr. Cohen was director of education programs at the National Governors’ Association, he headed the staff that worked on the education goals adopted by President Bush and the N.G.A. He essentially worked for Mr. Clinton, who was the governors’ lead negotiator in the goals-setting effort.

Mr. Cohen said he works with the campaign’s “issues staff’’ to “put together a long-term strategy’’ as well as advising on “what we say today.’'

In practice, that has meant putting together a briefing book on education issues, writing drafts of important speeches, and soliciting input on education topics from the advisory network.

According to participants, membership in the network essentially means consulting with Mr. Cohen and providing written memorandums on specific topics.

For example, Mr. Smith, who headed a subcommittee of the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, said he has written papers on issues related to national assessment. In addition, when the briefing book was being compiled, Mr. Smith said he submitted memos that “ranged across the entire span of education, zero through adulthood.’'

“You write a short memo on the issue, and other people write memos on the issue, and you have no idea where your ideas come in,’' Mr. Smith said, echoing descriptions given by experts who advised Mr. Clinton during the goals process.

Information Sources

The campaign’s network is drawn from:

  • The education community. Several education-association officials confirmed that they had provided some assistance, but most did not want to be named.

“Some of these people work for organizations whose membership is bipartisan, and they’re doing this on their own,’' Mr. Cohen noted.

The teachers’ unions, which have openly backed Mr. Clinton, are less reticent about revealing their involvement.

The National Education Association has mounted an unprecedented, all-out effort to persuade its members to support Mr. Clinton. (See related story, page 1.)

But the American Federation of Teachers appears to be more intimately connected to the policy-development side of the campaign.

The union’s president, Albert Shanker, said he has met with Mr. Clinton “a few times’’ and also with David Wilhelm, the manager of the Clinton campaign, discussing “different things I thought ought to be hit in terms of education themes, places where I thought he should make appearances.’'

But it is Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to Mr. Shanker, who maintains frequent and regular contact with Mr. Cohen. She said she serves as “a bottomless source of information ... on substantive issues.’'

  • Capitol Hill. Several Democratic Congressional aides confirmed that they and some of their colleagues had participated in the exchange of memorandums, although they asked not to be identified and stressed that they had performed the tasks on their own time, not as part of their official duties. Key Democratic aides also regularly briefed Mr. Cohen on the status of education legislation.
  • The research community. In addition to Mr. Smith, a number of academics have provided advice to the campaign on their own time. However, some are connected with federally funded research facilities and did not wish to comment on their role.

A Well-Connected Think Tank

The National Center on Education and the Economy, the Rochester, N.Y., policy institute for which Mr. Cohen works, has ties to the campaign through a number of individuals.

Its president, Marc S. Tucker, is a long-time Clinton associate who worked closely with the Governor on the goals-setting effort, and other insiders confirm that he is an important adviser. The center’s board of directors includes both Hillary Clinton and Ira C. Magaziner, a longtime friend of Mr. Clinton’s who is, by all accounts, a member of the Governor’s inner circle.

Mr. Magaziner is an expert on international business and the president of SJS International, a foundation that provides advice to corporate clients and also does public-policy work on economic and social issues.

He was the chairman of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a bipartisan panel sponsored by the N.C.E.E., which released the report “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages’’ in 1990. Ms. Clinton is the chairwoman of a task force seeking to implement its recommendations.

The report calls for a national system of apprenticeship opportunities for non-college-bound youths, alternative education for dropouts, a national commitment to universal availability of job training, and requiring employers to provide training for their workers. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

The commission’s proposals have surfaced in Mr. Clinton’s campaign platform; indeed, improving workforce skills is a central element of his economic policy.

Mr. Tucker declined to comment, but insiders say that the N.C.E.E. is an important source of advice for the campaign.

Susan McGuire, a consultant who works with the center, said she has submitted papers on the apprenticeship concept.

“I have submitted some paper to them, but I wouldn’t call myself an adviser,’' Ms. McGuire said, echoing comments made by several others. “I think Governor Clinton and Hillary Clinton are very well versed on the specifics.’'

Hillary Clinton’s Role

Observers agree that Hillary Clinton is an important adviser to her husband on both education and job training. In addition to working with the N.C.E.E., Ms. Clinton served as the chairwoman of the Children’s Defense Fund board of directors for 16 years; served on the commission that wrote “The Forgotten Half,’' a report calling for efforts to provide training to non-college-bound youths; and is on the board of Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based research organization.

Ms. Clinton also headed a committee her husband appointed in 1983 to study the Arkansas education system, which made recommendations that formed the basis of Mr. Clinton’s education-reform initiatives. She is generally credited with originating the idea of requiring competency tests for teachers--an idea that garnered support from taxpayers and legislators but also won Mr. Clinton the enmity of teachers, who have changed their minds about the Governor only in the past few years.

A key point to recognize, Mr. Cohen said, is that each of the people in Mr. Clinton’s inner circle “are tied in to their own networks.’'

“It’s too fluid a process that I’m the one guy who sees everything and touches everything and anoints the people who are to be involved,’' he added.

For example, Mr. Cohen said, it is probably safe to assume that Ms. Clinton speaks frequently with the president of the C.D.F., Marian Wright Edelman, who has been mentioned as a likely choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, and that Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado is in contact with the campaign.

Both Ms. Edelman and Mr. Romer were unavailable for comment last week. A spokesman for Mr. Romer--who is a member of the National Education Goals Panel and the chairman of the National Governors’ Association, and who headed up the Democrats’ platform committee this summer--confirmed that he is involved, but declined to be specific.

Like many others, Donna Shalala, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, noted that the Clintons are both extremely familiar with education issues.

“I see Hillary occasionally, and I did have a conversation with Bill last week about education,’' she said, “but it’s not like foreign policy, where they are relatively new to the issues.’'

“If the question is, am I one of the people in education they know and trust, yes,’' said Ms. Shalala, who succeeded Ms. Clinton when she stepped down as chairwoman of the Children’s Defense Fund board in February. “If you’re asking if I’m actively involved in the campaign, interacting on a regular basis, no.’'

The Washington rumor mill has floated the names of both Ms. Shalala and Mr. Romer as potential secretaries of education.

“That probability is like winning the Wisconsin lottery,’' Ms. Shalala said. “The probability is so low, it’s just not in my head.’'

Mr. Clinton has also cited as influences some education thinkers who are playing no direct role in the campaign, a list that ranges from Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, to Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration and a leading informal adviser to Secretary Alexander.

Senior Editor Lynn Olson contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 1992 edition of Education Week as Clinton’s Search for Education Advice: ‘Coals to Newcastle’