President Bush intends to nominate Mississippi state schools chief Henry L. Johnson to become the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, the White House announced June 1. The job is one of the federal government’s highest-profile positions for working with precollegiate schools and state leaders.
Mr. Johnson plans to serve through the end of July as the superintendent of education in Mississippi, where in 2002 he became one of the state’s highest-ranking black officials since Reconstruction. He previously helped shape education policy during seven years as the associate state superintendent in North Carolina. Mr. Johnson, 59, was born in Alabama and grew up in North Carolina. (“Accountability the Main Goal For Miss. Superintendent,” June 18, 2003.)
In an interview, Mr. Johnson said that if confirmed by the Senate, he would work closely with officials from all the states to help them carry out the president’s signature No Child Left Behind Act while also helping states find enough flexibility within the law to ensure its full implementation.
“While education is a state responsibility, the federal government ought to think about additional ways we can help states build capacity, to help locals build capacity” toward school improvement, Mr. Johnson said.
The Mississippi chief would replace Raymond J. Simon, who is currently serving as both the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and acting deputy secretary, the department’s No. 2 position. President Bush has nominated him to fill the deputy secretary’s slot. Mr. Simon came to Washington in 2003 after serving as the state schools chief in Arkansas.
As the assistant secretary overseeing K-12 issues, Mr. Johnson would face state and local dissent over the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which requires standardized testing and yearly improvement in student achievement. Utah has passed legislation aimed at giving its state accountability system precedence over the federal law, and Connecticut has said it plans to sue the federal government over the costs of implementing the law. (“Union, States Wage Frontal Attack on NCLB,” April 27, 2005.)
Mr. Johnson said he would hope to build bridges with state leaders if his nomination is approved.
“I want to continue to move in the direction that [U.S. Secretary of Education] Margaret Spellings and Ray Simon are moving, in providing more flexibility within the law—where flexibility is warranted,” he said. “I don’t profess to come in there with any bright ideas about what will happen, but we need to make sure there’s ongoing conversation about how we can facilitate states’ doing their jobs better and improving educational outcomes for students.”
Kenny Bush, a state board of education member in Mississippi who was the panel’s chairman when Mr. Johnson was hired there, said the superintendent would be missed. He predicted that Mr. Johnson would do well at the federal department.
“He is one of the most knowledgeable education leaders on No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Bush, who is not related to the president, said in a recent interview. “What he probably underestimates,” he added, “is the power of the role model he is both for minorities and for whites” in Mississippi.