Observers Ponder Identity Of Next Education Secretary

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Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has been the Clinton administration's top spokesman on education for more than seven years, longer than anyone else has served in that Cabinet post. But later this year, a new president-elect will have to choose Mr. Riley's successor, and gossip about prospective nominees is starting to circulate in Washington.

Whoever the next secretary is, he or she will face the challenge of working with a new Congress not only to promote the next president's education initiatives, but also to wrap up the unfinished business of the current administration.

The most likely major holdover on the agenda is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the centerpiece of federal K-12 policy.

To date, nothing has been officially disclosed about contenders for the job. At this stage in the closely fought presidential race, both the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, and the Republican candidate, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, are more concerned about winning votes than choosing Cabinet members.

But the topic is on both candidates' minds, according to their advisers. And Washington lobbyists and other education observers here are keeping a running list of potential secretaries.

In Mr. Riley's view, the education secretary must have the ability to work with both parties and hire qualified staff members with strong backgrounds in education. An ideal candidate would not only have a knowledge of politics and the personal savvy to deal with controversial issues, but also a real familiarity with the inner workings of the nation's education systems, he said.

The job "calls for being able to certainly have a basic knowledge of all the different parts of education," the current education secretary said in an interview in his office overlooking Capitol Hill. "If you're looking at education from this seat, you see a multitude of things: the president, Congress, governors and state legislatures, school boards and teachers and principals and parents."

Mr. Riley said he has advised Mr. Gore, a close friend, on a number of education issues, but has not been consulted about prospects for education secretary.

Washington lobbyists, however, are focusing on two current governors as possible Gore picks: James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, who is retiring in January, and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, who is in a tight contest for the U.S. Senate.

Gov. Bush wants "a reformer with results," possibly a governor or business leader, according to one of his advisers, who requested anonymity.

Observers mention Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Houston Superintendent of Schools Rod Paige, among others, as potential education secretaries in a Bush administration.

Riley Legacy

Education secretary is one of the most junior Cabinet positions, dating only to 1979, but the job has become increasingly attractive during nearly two decades of continuing concern about improving precollegiate education.

"Everybody wants to get involved in education," said John F. Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy and a former aide to Democrats on the House education committee. "There is going to be a long list of people who want that job, under either administration."

There is also widespread regard for Secretary Riley, who has served in the position since President Clinton took office in 1993. Most lobbyists and congressional lawmakers, even if they don't always agree with the administration's positions, have praised Mr. Riley's down-home style and reputation for integrity.

Whether Mr. Riley's popularity will hinder his successor remains to be seen.

"I think Dick Riley has done a superb job, and the next secretary will have to fit that mold," Gov. Hunt said in a recent interview.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant education secretary under President Reagan, disagreed: "Everybody likes and respects Dick Riley, but that does not mean his successor will have a tougher job."

A Full Plate

What will make the job tough, though, is the amount of work to be done, Mr. Finn added. The next president will usher in the first new administration in eight years, and both Vice President Gore and Gov. Bush have made education a top priority.

"Both candidates have long, complex, multifaceted policies," Mr. Finn said. "The next secretary is going to have a great big plate-load of K-12 programs, not to mention higher ed."

A Gore appointee, for instance, would be charged with pushing for big increases in federal funding for education. A new universal-preschool plan is the most expensive item on Mr. Gore's 10-year, $115 billion agenda for education, but the vice president has also proposed new programs for teacher recruitment and salaries, accountability, and improvement of failing schools.

Mr. Bush's choice, meanwhile, would have to fight for new accountability programs that would require states to give mathematics and reading tests to students in grade 3-8 in Title I schools, and for federally financed vouchers for students in failing Title I schools. The governor, who wants an estimated 10-year boost of $47 billion in education spending, also favors combining current programs for professional development, class-size reduction, and Goals 2000 into a new fund for teacher training and recruitment.

In addition, the next secretary most likely will have to help guide the ESEA through its reauthorization in Congress. Lawmakers were supposed to complete the overhaul of the largest federal K-12 law this year, but the process bogged down in election-year debate.

In looking at prospective Democratic secretaries, observers call Gov. Hunt a natural successor to Mr. Riley in terms of experience.

Like Mr. Riley, who previously served as the governor of South Carolina, Mr. Hunt is a Southern governor who has made education, particularly early learning, a priority of his four nonconsecutive terms. Mr. Hunt has also achieved national prominence on the education scene. He is a founder and former chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and a member of the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century.

In a recent interview, Gov. Hunt played down his prospects.

"I'm not a candidate for anything," he said. "I'd have to think long and hard before taking on another political post ... but we'll see about things like that."

Another Democratic possibility is Delaware's Gov. Carper. A two-term governor and former member of the U.S. House, he championed a major new student-and-educator accountability system in his state that includes high-stakes testing.

Apart from any other considerations, Mr. Carper's prospects depend on the outcome of another election: He is running for the Senate against five-term Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a Republican, and polls show the race to be tight. If Gov. Carper loses, said one Democratic observer who asked to remain anonymous, he would be a prime candidate for the secretary's slot assuming Mr. Gore is elected.

Bruce Reed, President Clinton's domestic-policy adviser, is also rumored to be a contender. Mr. Reed is a trusted friend of Mr. Gore's, according to the Democratic source. He has worked in the domestic-policy office, which oversees the administration's education initiatives, since the start of the Clinton administration. Before that, he was a speechwriter for then-Sen. Gore from 1985 to 1989, and the policy director at the Democratic Leadership Council from 1989 to 1991, when he joined the Clinton campaign.

GOP Prospects

If Gov. Bush wins the White House, Mr. Paige could become the first African-American to serve as education secretary. The charismatic superintendent has held the reins in the 210,000-student Houston district for nearly seven years and is viewed by many as a leader in urban education. During his tenure, Houston has linked principals' contracts to student performance and declared English literacy a goal for all students. Literacy and accountability are high on Mr. Bush's education priority list.

Two Republican governors, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, are also often cited because they share similar views on education reform with Gov. Bush. Mr. Ridge has trumpeted accountability and improving failing schools during his six years in office, while Mr. Thompson has supported a pioneering, publicly financed voucher program for Milwaukee students from low-income families.

Texas Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson, a Bush appointee who has worked on many of the governor's school initiatives, has also been mentioned. And while retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell seems to be a shoo-in for secretary of state in a Bush administration, some say not to rule him out for secretary of education. At the GOP's national convention in August, Gen. Powell spoke passionately about education.

And despite having served as Sen. John McCain's top education adviser during his failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination, his fellow Arizonan Lisa Graham Keegan, the state superintendent of schools, is still often mentioned as a potential education secretary for Mr. Bush. She sees things differently, however.

"I suspect I'm not at the top of the list, and I have no regrets," she said in a recent interview. "I certainly believe Governor Bush is right to look for people who have been loyal to him over a period of time."

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Pages 23, 25

Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as Observers Ponder Identity Of Next Education Secretary
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