Education

Simon Puts His Stamp On ‘No Child’ Details

By Michelle R. Davis — April 21, 2004 6 min read
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Raymond J. Simon, the Department of Education’s point man on the No Child Left Behind Act, knows his Dr. Seuss.

In his sparsely decorated office at the department’s headquarters here, the bookshelves are nearly bare except for a colorful collection of the master of rhyme’s slim volumes. Mr. Simon’s favorite is Hooray For Diffendoofer Day, which coincidentally is all about educational testing.

As the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Mr. Simon is defending the testing called for in the Bush administration’s signature school law, as well as trying to win over the law’s growing chorus of critics.

Mr. Simon believes that the No Child Left Behind Act can help make sure students learn what they need to know, just like the pupils in Diffendoofer Day who save their unique school by acing a test on noodles, poodles, frogs, and yelling.

The former director of the Arkansas state education department is trying to convince state policymakers and education stakeholders of that. And it appears that he’s making progress.

“Ray gives our people a great deal of hope,” said Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “He’s been there. He knows what states are dealing with.”

A Long Way From Home

Though he had never before lived more than 30 miles from his birthplace of Conway, Ark., Mr. Simon, 59, has been gliding through the cutthroat world of Washington politics like a gulp of sweet tea on a hot day.

Since he arrived in November, the gray-haired and mild-mannered Mr. Simon has been reaching out to a long list of education groups, holding conference calls, giving speeches, and scribbling notes, all with the goal of helping states comply with the No Child Left Behind law.

“The initial reaction is, ‘We can’t do this—it’s an impossible goal,’” he said. “We must help with that.”

Raymond J. Simon

Age: 59

Position: Assistant secretary of education for elementary and secondary education.

Previous experience: Served six years as the director of the Arkansas Department of Education; before then, was superintendent of the Conway, Ark., school district, 1991-97.

Family: Married 37 years to Phyllis Simon; one daughter; one grandson.

Quote: “The closer you can get to talking to people who have concerns or want to support you, the better. … We may not agree on a position, but at least you understand where the other person is coming from.”

Mr. Simon took the place of Susan B. Neuman, who abruptly left the department more than a year ago. In the interim, the department’s acting deputy secretary, Eugene W. Hickok, had also been covering the elementary and secondary post.

Critics have said the department had faltered in communications with states and school districts on the complex and controversial law, a 2-year-old reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Mr. Simon, some educators say, is turning that situation around.

“It feels like he’s listening in a way that perhaps others weren’t,” said D. Kent King, Missouri’s commissioner of education.

Part of Mr. Simon’s appeal may be the credibility he brings as an experienced educator himself. As a state chief, he was working to implement the federal law in Arkansas. A former math teacher, Mr. Simon also served as the superintendent of the 8,200-student Conway public schools before spending six years as state education director.

In Washington, Mr. Simon has been at the forefront recently as the department announced a series of flexibility changes designed to help states comply with the No Child Left Behind law, providing new leeway on test-participation rates, some testing, and teacher qualifications.

Although the regulatory changes were likely in the pipeline before Mr. Simon arrived here, the tinkering “had Ray Simon’s stamp on it,” said Sid Johnson, the president of the 17,000-member Arkansas Education Association, who worked closely with Mr. Simon during his years as state schools chief.

“There’s probably some more things he’d like to change, too.”

Mr. Simon has reached out to education groups in Washington, including some with a history of trading jabs with the Bush administration, such as the National Education Association.

In Arkansas, Mr. Simon’s cordial relations with the state NEA affiliate—Mr. Johnson’s group—had even included giving teacher officials his cellphone number. When he arrived in the nation’s capital, he set out to bridge the divide between the 2.7 million-member national union and the department.

“He initiated a meeting with us,” said Joel Packer, who coordinates the NEA’s No Child Left Behind Act activities. “I was a little surprised.”

Mr. Simon has led special briefings for education officials and made sure information previously unavailable is now posted on the department Web site, Mr. Packer said.

Mr. Simon’s outside-the-Beltway status may help, too. Though he is an unabashed supporter of the education law, he doesn’t consider himself a Republican or a Democrat. He most often voted in the Democratic primaries in his home state because he says that’s where the action was.

“I don’t really profess to be in either party,” he said.

There have been a few glitches, however. Just as Mr. Simon was reaching out to the NEA, Secretary of Education Rod Paige labeled the union “a terrorist organization” in February, prompting a national outcry. Mr. Paige has since apologized and Mr. Simon said he doesn’t want to talk about that now— he only wants to move forward. (“Furor Lingers Over Paige’s Union Remark,” March 3, 2004.)

‘A Geeky Math Teacher’

Underneath Mr. Simon’s folksy demeanor, he has a steely commitment to doing his job and a keen political sense, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas said in a recent interview.

Those traits were put to the test after the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the state school funding system was unconstitutional. The road map developed by Gov. Huckabee, a Republican, and Mr. Simon included a controversial proposal for consolidation of rural school districts with fewer than 1,500 students. Ultimately, the state legislature adopted a much more modest plan. (“Arkansas School Merger Plans Take Shape,” this issue.)

The process was heated, Mr. Huckabee said, but Mr. Simon never lost his temper or determination.

“He has a low-key style that belies an extraordinary sense of resolve,” Mr. Huckabee said. Though Mr. Simon looks like “a geeky math teacher, he’s an absolute tenacious completer of the task,” Mr. Huckabee said.

But Jimmy Cunningham, the president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association, said he felt betrayed by the position taken by Mr. Simon—a former superintendent of a rural school district.

“People should stick to what they believe in,” Mr. Cunningham said.

These days, one of Mr. Simon’s biggest challenges is to sell the No Child Left Behind law to the states and the public.

The assistant secretary’s commitment to better educating students shows in the field, said Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable. The Washington-based group of corporate leaders supports the law. “People have gotten more caught up in problems than remembering why we’re doing this in the first place,” Ms. Traiman said. “Ray is able to use that passion to remind people.”

Mr. Simon said he wants to make his efforts personal. The face he puts to his work is that of his 2-year- old grandson, Alex, adopted from Russia by his daughter and son-in-law. The proud grandfather pulled a creased picture of the boy from his shirt pocket and as he told the story of the boy’s adoption, his eyes filled with tears.

“I want Alex to have the very best teacher and the very best opportunity every year he’s in school,” Mr. Simon said. “It shouldn’t be the luck of the draw whether Alex gets a good teacher or not. “

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