Key White House Aide Moves to Ed. Dept.

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As the Bush administration wrestles with mounting criticism of its education policies, the White House has shifted one of the president’s chief domestic-policy advisers to the Department of Education.

David Dunn, 47, a special assistant to President Bush for domestic policy, moved earlier this month to the Education Department, where officials are spending much of their time working with state leaders on the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.

A former employee of the Texas Association of School Boards, Mr. Dunn said he worked on kindergarten- through college- level education issues at the White House. He retains his title and will focus on the implementation of the No Child Left Behind law, coordinating implementation efforts, he said.

"We’re concerned that there’s some misinformation and misperceptions about the way No Child Left Behind works," said Mr. Dunn, who started at the department the first week in March. "Part of my job duties here are to try to clear up those misperceptions and provide accurate information."

Coming amid a vocal backlash against the federal law, Mr. Dunn’s move is seen by some as a sign of White House displeasure at the Education Department’s handling of the controversy in a presidential-election year. And it is seen in some quarters as reinforcing a perception that arose during the crafting of the No Child Left Behind Act: that the White House holds a tight rein over department operations.

"The underlying message of No Child Left Behind has been severely compromised," said Susan B. Neuman, a former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Bush administration, who left Washington last year amid speculation that she was forced out. "This signals how serious things have gotten."

States trying to implement the law have certainly kicked up a ruckus, saying the federal government isn’t sending enough money to make changes, and calling parts of the law arbitrary and unworkable.

A handful of states have considered legislation rejecting federal education funding in order to opt out of the requirements of the law, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Others have adopted resolutions demanding more flexibility, sending federal education officials scurrying to turn the tide.

In addition, Secretary of Education Rod Paige provoked outrage last month when he called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization" because of its opposition to key provisions of the law.

But lately the department has been reaching out to its critics, and some say Mr. Dunn’s move is designed to reinforce that trend. Last week, Mr. Paige announced a relaxation of standards for "highly qualified" teachers, on top of notices of more flexibility for testing special education students and those who aren’t fluent in English. ("Federal Rules for Teachers Are Relaxed," this issue.)

And at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington earlier this month, Mr. Paige’s message was mostly conciliatory, marking a change in tone.

"I don’t think it’s a coincidence," David Shreve, an education lobbyist for the Washington-based NCSL, said of Mr. Dunn’s move. "It indicates to me that the deaf ear the department was giving a lot of our concerns may be replaced by someone who is a bit more willing to listen and can make some changes."

But Mr. Dunn said his transfer from the White House was not inspired by politics. "This is just another indication of the [administration’s] commitment to this issue. ... It’s all about the kids," he said.

Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said Secretary Paige invited Mr. Dunn to work at the department to help with the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. "People should stop reading the tea leaves," she said.

Mr. Dunn came to the White House in August 2002. In Texas, while the director of government relations for the state school boards’ association, Mr. Dunn worked on school finance and other public education issues. In particular, he helped craft the Texas accountability system, said Sandy Kress, a former education adviser to President Bush who also worked with Mr. Dunn in Texas. That state-level experience should bring him credibility in the field, Mr. Kress said.

"He understands implementation problems," he said. "He’s seen it from the budgetary side, too."

Political Liability?

The bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2001, was slated to be the centerpiece of Mr. Bush’s domestic accomplishments highlighted in this year’s presidential campaign.

But in recent months it has become more a political liability than an asset to the Bush administration, said Bruce Hunter, an associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.

"They thought they had done such a marvelous thing. They all held hands and sang ‘Kum Ba Yah,’" Mr. Hunter said. "Now, they’re shocked to find out that people in the schools don’t agree with their assessment."

A significant effort to turn around that negative impression is under way, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group and a former education aide to House Democrats.

"The No Child Left Behind Act is becoming an impediment to Bush’s re-election," Mr. Jennings said. "It’s logical that the White House wants more control because of the political risk."

But others say Mr. Dunn’s move is a continuation of the White House’s white-knuckled grip over the Education Department, first apparent during negotiations over the No Child Left Behind Act.

"We’ve known from the get-go that the Education Department is being extremely closely monitored by the White House, and I surmise that this is more surveillance," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a department official under President Reagan.

But the shifting of personnel between the White House and various agencies is common, Mr. Kress said.

"There’s a game in Washington called ‘Pit the White House Against the Department,’" he said. "This move is just to make sure the administration is hitting the ball as hard as it can."

Vol. 23, Issue 28, Pages 24, 28

Published in Print: March 24, 2004, as Key White House Aide Moves to Ed. Dept.
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