Education Opinion

Secrets Of The USDE: Insider Edelstein On The HotSeat

By Alexander Russo — January 23, 2007 6 min read
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In honor of tonight’s State Of The Union, this week’s HotSeat honoree is longtime USDE insider Fritz Edlestein, who tells all under pressure, including among other things,

-- about his new endeavors (they are many)
-- on whether mayoral control is right for everyone (it’s not)
-- on how to get a law changed after it’s been passed (can it really be that easy?)
-- on his shameful involvement in Blue Ribbon Schools (now it can be told)
-- on whether it’s a go for national standards (“the time is getting riper”), and
-- about some of his main accomplishments and favorite colleagues from 31 years at the Department.

Oh, and he schools us on how to pronounce his name correctly, too.

EdelsTEEN or EdelSTINE?

FE: Edel Steen.

What are you up to these days?

FE: I started a new group, Public Private Action. I also continue to manage the Ohio Mayors’ Education Roundtable and have just begun to implement a California Mayors’ Education Roundtable. I also work with several public and private sector clients as well as completing a grant from the Carnegie Corporation on high school reform.

What’s your take on national standards, both substantively and in terms of their political prospects this time around?

FE: We need national standards. There will be an ongoing debate, but in the long term we will have them because we can no longer afford to have such a variance among state standards. It may take a few more years but the time is getting riper.

What was your main focus while at the Conference, and how did it go?

FE: My main focus was getting mayors more engaged and involved in education, helping them understand education issues, and finding ways for them to be strategic in their leadership role in education. During my three plus years, I believe there was significant progress in mayoral leadership and involvement in education. One key publication developed while at the Conference was “Mayoral Leadership and Involvement in Education: An Action Guide for Success,” which is now in its third printing.

Why did you leave the US Conference relatively quickly? Don’t the mayors like education any more?

FE: Work is still being done in education at the Conference. I continue to provide support in as a consultant on one project. I continue to work with mayors with my new group.

What’s your position on mayoral control, and which city seems to have gotten the best setup in terms of governance and accountability?

FE: The governance issue of schools is a very individual one. It really depends on a significant number and variety of factors. Mayoral control may be appropriate for one city and not for another. However, each mayoral control city seems to be doing well and improving the quality of education in the schools. This governance approach is not appropriate for most cities nor do most mayors want to have control of or responsibility for the pubic schools. They would rather work with the school system as a partner.

What were some of your main projects and accomplishments while at the USDE, and how long were you there, anyway?

FE: I retired from the Department after 31 years of government service but not all of it was spent at the National Institute of Education, Office of Education or the U.S. Department of Education. I was lucky to go on loan a few times to expand my experiences and learn some new things.

The creation and implementation of constituent relations under Secretary Riley is one accomplishment I’m proud of. The intent was to improve access to and interaction with education stakeholders of which there are many. A second goes back to NIE days when I organized an ongoing conversation about school desegregation policy that brought together all aspects of the Federal government working in this difficult area. And there are several others that kind of lump together -- several reauthorizations of ESEA beginning with 1978, writing of the School to Work legislation, and lastly recommending the change in the length of the Commission that wrote A Nation At Risk during the regulatory review process prior to announcing the Commission.

Do anything embarrassing during all those years?

FE: I guess some of the more troubling work I did which I tried to be least associated with was Blue Ribbon Schools, which I helped create. I did not feel it was rigorous enough. Nor were they using at the time the good examples to try to get the information out. It was all about rewarding schools which is not a bad thing but it was all fluff with little stuff.

Who’s left at the USDE who knows anything, and what are they doing? Anyone you want to give a shout out to?

FE: Some of the key career people that I do know and are still doing significant work include Phil Rosenfelt, Paul Riddle, Kathyrn Ellis, Susan Craig, Will Haubert and Harold Jenkins in OGC; Tom Skelly, Susan Wiener, Tom Corwin and Carol Cichowski in Budget; Joe Conaty, Susan Wilhelm, Bob Stonehill, Francisco Garcia and Bill Modzelski in Elementary and Secondary; Alan Ginsburg and Adriana de Kanter in Planning; Patty Guard and Andrew Pepin in OSERS; Gail Schwartz in OVAE; Lynn Mahaffie, David Bergeron, and David Madzelan in OPE; Ricky Takai in IES; and Val Plisko in NCES.

Most folks think that Congress passes a law and that’s about it, but there’s lots of finagling and adjusting after that, right? Tell us about the process and some of the things that shift between statute and implementation.

FE: Yes, Congress passes a statute. But that’s just the beginning. Then Hill staff review the legislative record to make any changes that are necessary since language may not be clear. Next are discussions between the agency, say the Department of Education, and the key Hill staff to make sure there is an understanding of the bill prior to developing proposed rules.

Where could I get something changed or fixed?

FE: Developing the regulations is definitely the part where it is the Administration’s interpretation of the statute, but usually not too far a field from the language or the legislative history. One might say that the finesse on the policy takes place in the writing of the regulations and policy guidance, and the drafting of programmatic priorities when grant announcements are written.

And just how would I get something changed in regs or guidance, then?

FE: Often hearings are held to get public input. Also, education stakeholders groups have ongoing conversations with the Department as well as make their positions well know to members of Congress to make changes in the proposed rules.

What was the biggest mistake or misunderstanding in NCLB, as enacted, that someone who knew how the USDE worked could have helped avoid?

FE: One mistake is the obtuseness of some of the NCLB language for implementation and the lack of flexibility. A second mistake is that drafting a bill late at night and not knowing all of the parts and how they interact has proven a major obstacle in a clean implementation at all levels. Common sense would have helped in sequencing SES and choice. Also, I don’t think anyone thought through the implementation issues of AYP.

If you could do three things to improve NCLB, what would they be?

FE: Resolving the AYP issue. I think we need to move to a growth model which seems to be supported by Congressman Miller. Easiest to fix is probably the sequencing of SES and choice or just build in the opition for the district. Also, fixing highly qualified teacher is important as is the problems with special education and English language learners.

Previous posts: Where’s Fritz?, and The FritzWire

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