Small Group’s Inside Role in Goals-Setting Provides Clues to Education Policymaking

By Julie A. Miller — March 14, 1990 11 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Almost every governor and most of President Bush’s Cabinet made the trip to the education summit in Charlottesville, Va., last September for two days of roundtable discussions and speechmaking.

Arguably, however, the real action took place in a room at the Boar’s Head Inn, where three governors and a White House official, accompanied by their aides, hammered out an agreement on the document that was to be the summit’s only tangible product.

It was essentially that same small group that fashioned the education goals adopted by the National Governors’ Association late last month. And, by all indications, that same group will lead efforts to fashion strategies to achieve those targets.

The nature of the goals-setting process, the identity of the participants, and the details of their agendas provide important clues about how subsequent events will unfold and about how education policy in the Bush Administration is made. And more than anything else, lessons learned from the past several months reveal the essentially political nature of setting a national education agenda.

Three men have made up the innermost circle: Roger B. Porter, Mr. Bush’s domestic-policy adviser, and the two governors who were named co-chairmen of the NGA’s education task force--Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a Democrat, and Carroll A. Campbell of South Carolina, a Republican.

Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, the NGA’s chairman, was at the pivotal Charlottesville meeting, and he and Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington were significantly involved at other junctures in the process.

John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, and Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, attended some of the key meetings and consulted regularly with Mr. Porter.

Cavazos’ Role

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos was not at the Boar’s Head, and he acknowledged in an interview last week that he attended few policy meetings.

Nikki McNamee, director of Mr. Campbell’s Washington office, said that she thought Mr. Cavazos “was a player,” and that he or “his people,” particularly Christopher T. Cross, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, attended many of the work sessions.

But others who were close to the process said the Secretary did not play an important role--or at least not one that was apparent to them.

“I think it said a lot about his position in the Administration,” one source said.

“When there were public things like the summit,” Mr. Cavazos was there, said Gloria Cabe, an Arkansas state legislator who has been Mr. Clinton’s chief aide during the goals-setting process.

But, she added, “when we were talking about specific language and so forth, he wasn’t there.”

Mr. Cross, in an interview, characterized his role as “a research role.”

“We [OERI officials] were not setting policy,” and did not attend “policy meetings,” he said. “Our role was to point out issues like whether something can be measured and what the status of the data is.”

Mr. Cavazos last week contested assertions that he did not play an important role.

Asked if he thinks Mr. Porter tried to freeze the Secretary out of the process, Mr. Cavazos said, “I don’t think it was” what happened. But, he added, “Certainly somebody could have had that opinion.”

“I can’t just set everything aside and devote all my energies to setting national goals,” Mr. Cavazos said. “Roger [Porter] can devote full time to that; I have a big department to run.”

The Secretary said he made his mark by consulting with Mr. Porter and asserted that many of the ideas and much of the draft language Mr. Porter advanced in negotiations came from him and others in the Education Department.

“Those goals would not have happened if not for the Department of Education, frankly, because the expertise does not exist in the White House to develop these goals,” Mr. Cavazos added.

Porter at the Lead

Mr. Porter also contended in an interview last week that the Secretary was too busy to attend a lot of meetings. Mr. Porter said he began filling the lead Administration role in the process when he was asked to coordinate “the policy side” of the education summit, which was “obviously” a White House event.

He said he consulted frequently with Mr. Cavazos, as well as with Mr. Sununu and Mr. Darman. And he characterized the work done by OERI officials as “extraordinarily helpful,” although he noted that OMB staff members also made important contributions.

Mr. Porter said that he discussed the draft goals a few times with Mr. Bush, but that the President was not involved in hammering out details. Mr. Porter said he “walked [the President] through the whole thing” at a meeting shortly before Mr. Bush announced the goals in his State of the Union Message in January.

“He provides excellent guidance without micromanaging,” Mr. Porter said. “I knew where he wanted to come out and what he was comfortable with. And he did give me specific guidance with regards to particular things he wanted to see in there.”

Education Experts

While Mr. Porter apparently confined his consultations to Administration officials, the key governors and n.g.a. staff members regularly consulted with a handful of education experts while developing their proposed goals and objectives.

Named as the most significant “consultants” were Marc S. Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Education and the Economy; Marshall Smith, dean of Stanford University’s education school; Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States; and Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of Brown University’s education department.

Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and Mr. Cross’s predecessor, was also mentioned. And governors and their aides said they also talked with representatives of teachers’ unions and other education groups from time to time.

“I spent a couple of days in meetings; I wrote a few things for the governors, especially Clinton; there were faxes back and forth,” Mr. Smith said in an interview.

“They would ask me, ‘What do you think of this language? Does this make sense?”’ he said. “I pushed my own ideas; so did other people, so it’s hard to take credit for anything.”

The key participants also sought input in formal ways, such as hearings in which dozens of educators, business leaders, and other interested parties spoke and submitted written suggestions. The White House organized a series of meetings before the summit in which interested parties spoke with the President. Mr. Bush’s education advisory committee also met to discuss the goals.

Aides say that they weighed all this input, and that some of the education groups’ suggestions are similar to ideas that appear in the goals document. But, participants agree, it is virtually impossible to trace the origin of particular ideas.

“A lot of things got in there because someone made a compelling argument, and it got on the agenda,” Mr. Newman said. “Once that happened, suddenly 50 people suggested it; when something dropped like a brick, it was found on a scrap of paper lying on the floor.”

While the documents were the product of many minds, participants said, it was ultimately Mr. Porter and Mr. Clinton who came to the negotiating table with their respective drafts and battled over which language and which format to use.

‘Different Marching Orders’

“A lot of things had to be worked out, and we were in different positions with different marching orders,” Mr. Clinton said in an interview last week. “He thought he could get an educationally sound document while working within the President’s campaign promises and Darman’s budget instructions.”

“He tried to control the ball as much as he could,” Mr. Clinton said, “but so did I.”

Mr. Campbell was also directly involved in later stages. Ms. McNamee said he saw his role as that of an “honest broker” between the White House and the governors, a role Mr. Clinton could not play because he is a Democrat.

“I respect him for that,” Mr. Clinton said, adding that Mr. Campbell “made [the goals statement] a stronger document because he was willing to side with the governors” when he saw fit.

From the beginning, there was tension between the governors’ desire to establish specific goals and Mr. Porter’s desire to avoid locking the President into promises he could not keep.

Before the summit, “it didn’t appear that the White House had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish,” and they did not want to issue a statement, said Michael Cohen, an NGA education analyst who was a key participant in all phases of the negotiations.

But Mr. Cohen said the consensus among governors was that they wanted something more conclusive.

“The governors--both Democrats and Republicans--didn’t want to give the President a public-relations photo opportunity and get nothing out of it,” he said.

The governors succeeded. Mr. Clinton came to the meeting armed with a draft, which was the document revised that night at the Boar’s Head Inn. Mr. Porter’s primary contribution, Mr. Cohen said, was language calling for regulatory flexibility.

Level of Specificity Debated

The agreement promised that education goals would be announced at the February NGA meeting, and it established the broad areas in which goals would be set.

In negotiations over subsequent months, the governors and NGA staff members tried to work into the goals document many specific targets, with numerical benchmarks.

A draft Mr. Clinton brought to a key December meeting, for example, included such specific proposals as reducing the incidence of low- birthweight babies to 5 percent and increasing the number of students passing advanced-placement calculus exams by 50 percent. Later drafts were more streamlined.

“About halfway into the process, we realized we weren’t going to be able to achieve that level of specificity that quickly,” Ms. Cabe said.

In contrast, Mr. Porter’s December draft included essentially the same six goals that were ultimately adopted. The only major change he made in later drafts was to substitute the assessment-based achievement goal that appears in the final version for an achievement goal calling for completion of a rigorous curriculum.

Participants say Mr. Porter insisted on the six goals he had drafted, and the governors finally agreed. Both Democratic and Republican governors have said they wanted the attention that inclusion in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union speech would give the goals.

“The President had the say-so on what he said in that speech,” Mr. Clinton said. “Because of that, there was a subtle shift to where the agreement had to be more on their [the White House’s] terms.”

But many of the ideas included in the early NGA drafts are included in the final document as objectives, or in the narrative sections on assessment and “necessary changes” in the educational system.

Those sections contain verbatim passages from early Clinton drafts, and participants said the governor apparently wrote much of those sections himself.

Future Roles

One dispute that has not been resolved is the makeup and role of a bipartisan commission both the governors and Mr. Porter want to establish to oversee implementation of the goals. The governors want broad representation, particularly from the Congress; Mr. Porter wants the board to be a Presidential commission whose staff work is done in the Education Department.

However that issue is resolved, Mr. Porter will apparently have less control over the next stage of the process, in which the governors are to draft strategies to enable the goals to be achieved.

Mr. Porter said it is his understanding that the governors will develop state-specific strategies and that the White House will not approve them--or be responsible for them.

“Governors make a very legitimate point,” he said, “that ‘we’re happy to have you folks working on goals, but you’re not going to determine how we reach those goals in my state.”’

He also noted that the necessary changes must come at the state and local levels, adding that “there was a very strong conviction that trying to have a top-down approach would be counterproductive.”

Asked if this is an attempt to shrink from political accountability, Mr. Porter said: “It’s not just [Mr. Bush] saying, ‘It’s your responsibility.’ He’s prepared to continue to give leadership on this thing” and support increased funding for Head Start and research activities.

Mr. Cavazos said his role now is to try to focus attention on the goals, and to shape the department’s activities toward achieving them. He included a five-page summary of items in his proposed 1991 budget that are aimed in that direction.

Mr. Cross said the agency’s research arm will work on assessment and strategy.

“There’s enormous implications; it’s going to drive this agency for literally the next decade,” he said.

Participants readily acknowledge that educators and parents must sign on, and some observers think there will be resistance.

“Change comes hard; to the educator, it’s a change in his or her life,” Mr. Newman said.

Others think educators will resist goals that were set by politicians.

“At last report, Roger Porter had not established a dictatorship over 2 million teachers,” said Bruce Hunter, an associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Bitterness about being excluded is already apparent on Capitol Hill.

At a recent hearing, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, sarcastically commended an Education Department official for suggesting that the Congress be a partner in implementing the goals.

“I appreciated that because he included the Congress, which until now hasn’t been included,” Mr. Hawkins said. “I’m now encouraged to bring before the committee legislative ideas I haven’t participated in.’'

Staff Writer Reagan Walker also contributed material for this story.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as Small Group’s Inside Role in Goals-Setting Provides Clues to Education Policymaking


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Teaching Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: How Can We Help Students Feel Connected to School?
Get strategies for your struggles with student engagement. Bring questions for our expert panel. Help students recover the joy of learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Science Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: June 8, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: June 1, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 11, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 27, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read