School & District Management

Doing the ‘Right’ Thing

By Michelle R. Davis — April 16, 2003 13 min read
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Gene Hickok has never shied away from telling people exactly what they don’t want to hear.

A blustery, snow-blown day this March in a college lecture hall at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, was entirely typical. Wearing a crisp navy suit with a handkerchief tucked neatly in the breastpocket, Hickok, the U.S. undersecretary of education, faced a crowd of education graduate students in jeans and sweatshirts, some still bleary from spring break.

The students training as teachers and, on this morning in Charlottesville, Va., listening to a Republican with a history of clashing with teachers’ unions peppered him with piercing questions about Washington’s freshly extended reach into America’s elementary and secondary classrooms.

The man in charge of making the No Child Left Behind Act a reality, a true-believer conservative, may be developing a taste for shades of gray.

Hickok deftly outlined the new federal law aimed at improving public schools. But he also told the students there should be more alternative paths for teachers to reach classrooms. For instance, Hickok told the crowd, it’s folly that someone like himself—with a couple of advanced degrees and years of educating college students about political science—would be barred in many places from teaching a high school civics class.

“To me, that certification isn’t the silver bullet we think it is,” Hickok said.

That message, one definitely not calibrated to please, left some students fuming.

“For him to say we need highly qualified teachers but we don’t need to move them through a quality education program like this one is asinine,” Craig A. Young, in his second year of the Master of Teaching program, said afterward. “I’m $32,000 in debt. That’s a slap in our faces.”

But Eugene W. Hickok, 52, is a true believer and, until recently, hasn’t often tempered his message to fit his audience.

Gene Hickok, seen here in his Education Department office, disdains the Washington insider culture. But those watching say he uses his charm and savvy to excel in that environment.
Gene Hickok, seen here in his Education Department office, disdains the Washington insider culture. But those watching say he uses his charm and savvy to excel in that environment.
—Photograph by Allison Shelly

During six years as Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, Hickok often faced a hostile roster of education advocacy organizations. He spent 16 years as a political science professor at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pa., where his conservative politics set him apart from other faculty members. And he helped coordinate the defection of several state schools chiefs from a leading Washington advocacy group in 1995.

But now, holding the No. 3 position in the federal Department of Education, Hickok seems to be acquiring a leadership style that allows him to blaze a path toward his educational and political aims— without burning bridges. Spearheading the implementation of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001—the Bush administration’s signature educational endeavor— he appears to be adopting a more flexible tone and easing aside the ideological blinders some say he wore to Washington.

On another March day, this time on a chilly Capitol Hill, Hickok stands before a different group: members of Congress grilling him on the No Child Left Behind Act.

As Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s point man for the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Hickok has the ticklish responsibility for turning legislative theory into a 50-state, 50 million-student reality. The law calls for dramatic national education changes, with more testing, new accountability and teacher-quality rules, and new mandates for public school choice.

Long an advocate of minimal federal meddling in local prerogatives, Hickok finds himself now serving as the chief overseer for a law that greatly expands Uncle Sam's education role.

During the past few months, the undersecretary has met with dozens of state education chiefs, two hours at a time, to get details on the difficulties they face. At this hearing, before the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for setting federal education spending, Hickok nimbly sprinkles his comments with state-specific information gleaned from those tête-à-têtes. His acting training (he earned money for college doing local commercials) is apparent as he adroitly jumps from topic to topic, parrying, placating, and pressing his point.

Since the No Child Left Behind law was enacted, Hickok has been both cheerleader and taskmaster to the states, which must put ambitious new education measures into place in a time of depleted budgets. What Hickok has as leverage is the power to withhold federal money. But the Education Department has never actually punished laggard states in that manner, so Hickok is an enforcer with precious few carrots to dispense and a stick that doesn’t produce much fear and trembling. But it should, he says.

“We’re serious,” he says later during an interview in his panoramic corner office at the department. “That’s not meant as a threat or as chest-pounding, but I took an oath to enforce the law and I will.”

Many people say Hickok has deftly managed to provide tough love to states, even expanding his sway over No Child Left Behind without much criticism. Last month, he took over on an interim basis for the former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

“He’s consolidated his power in the department,” says Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “You get the impression that Hickok is a force on his own, an independent force” within the agency.

But Jennings, a former Democratic House aide, says Hickok has shown early signs of “heavy-handedness” by pushing a strict interpretation of the school choice provision within the education law that would force schools to hire extra teachers or build new classrooms to make way for students transferring in from failing schools.

And Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association, says the nation’s largest teachers’ union has had “significant disagreements” on implementation of the law. The department is “very strongly” pushing school choice and extra academic help for students in failing schools, “almost above everything else,” Packer says. Hickok, he says, is “clearly the one driving the decisions and setting the direction and priorities.”

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, says he has seen Hickok back states when it comes to the new law, however. And with his background as a state education chief, Hickok brings instant credibility, Hoekstra says.

“My perspective is that he’ll be as flexible as the law allows,” says Hoekstra, who was among a minority of Republicans who voted against the No Child Left Behind law. “Gene has gone to bat for Michigan to make sure the law works for us.”

Tom Houlihan, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, points out that Hickok allowed states to stagger deadlines for compliance plans. “If he had taken a hellfire-and-brimstone attitude,” Houlihan says, “there would have been huge pushback.”

Hickok had nearly the opposite reputation as education secretary in Pennsylvania. Powerful state lobbies for teachers, administrators, and school board members found him inflexible, and criticized his lack of K-12 education credentials. When he was unexpectedly plucked from relative obscurity by then- Gov. Tom Ridge for the state education post in 1995, his involvement in precollegiate education amounted to less than two years’ service on a local school board.

Pennsylvania education leaders say Hickok was chosen solely for his support of vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of school choice— a Ridge priority.

“I don’t have anything constructive to say about him,” says Al Fondy, the president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Fondy and officials of several other statewide groups say Hickok shut them out of nearly every discussion. “There was just no relationship there,” Fondy says. He describes Hickok as an “imperious” academic, oblivious to the way his philosophies played out.

Gene Hickock in his Education Department office.

Hickock says you can’t be a “purely ideological person” and govern effectively. Public service, he says, “requires a combination of political philosophy and pragmatism.”
—Photographs by Allison Shelley/Education Week

Born in Denver and raised mostly in Richmond, Va., Hickok went to both public and private schools before getting a 1972 degree in government and foreign affairs from Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College. He then got a master’s degree in public administration and a doctorate in government, both from the University of Virginia.

While teaching political science at Dickinson College (where he earned several “outstanding teaching” awards), he took leaves to be an adjunct scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation and, though he is not a lawyer, to work on constitutional-law issues in the Reagan Justice Department.

Aside from raising two children who attended public schools, it was not until he got elected to the board of Pennsylvania’s 4,800-student Carlisle Area School District in 1993 that Hickok stepped into an active role in K-12 education. Almost immediately after he was sworn in, teachers there went on strike in a bitter feud that Hickok acknowledges colored his later dealings with unions.

He was such a newcomer to the scene that when he became Pennsylvania education secretary, Hickok didn’t even know where the state education offices were located. Recalling his first moments in his new digs, Hickok says, “I remember looking around and saying, ‘Now what do I do?’ ”

As state schools chief, he helped push through controversial new standards for students and teachers, as well as reading and technology programs. He was instrumental in slashing the education budget while increasing the number of programs administered, and helped put in place the Education Empowerment Act, which gives the state the right to intervene in troubled districts. Hickok also fought hard—but unsuccessfully—for conservative-agenda standbys like vouchers and privatization of school management.

He honed his political skills, too. In the battle over charter schools in Pennsylvania, for example, Hickok came up with a political “masterstroke,” says Charles B. Zogby, who took Hickok’s Pennsylvania position when the Washington job came calling. Though the state had no law permitting the independent public schools until 1997, federal money was available earlier for charter school “planning grants.” Hickok spread those grants throughout the state, and by the time charter school legislation reached state lawmakers, a built-in constituency was pressing them to pass it. And they did.

Critics say Hickok’s gains left Pennsylvania public education gasping for breath. “The schools are absolutely worse now,” says Patsy J. Tallarico, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state affilate of the NEA. “There was so much we could have done together.”

But others say part of the reason education groups reviled Hickok was that “he was so damn effective,” according to Millersville University political scientist Charles E. Greenawalt, who attended the University of Virginia with Hickok and shares many of his views. “No one liked going head to head with him,” Greenawalt says. “He terrorized them, quite frankly, in terms of being such a very good spokesperson for the Ridge administration.”

Hickok says, even in hindsight, he would not have operated differently. “I don’t regret the strategy I used,” he says, though it prompted some political enemies to dub him “Wild Gene” in a reference to his distant ancestor, the U.S. marshal and frontier legend Wild Bill Hickok.

Hickok wasn’t satisfied with a mere shake-up on the state level. During his days as a state education honcho, he also bucked the traditional education lobbying forces at the national level by breaking ranks with the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, which counted most top state education leaders as members.

What he saw as a mostly liberal- leaning organization wasn’t speaking for him, Hickok says. “The membership cost a fortune, and they were lobbying for things I didn’t agree with,” he says.

Critics say Hickok's gains left Pennsylvania public education gasping for breath. Others say part of the reason education groups reviled Hickok was that "he was so damn effective."

He and several other members defected and formed their own, more conservative group, the Education Leaders Council, in 1995. Hickok now says he’s worked hard to make peace with the CCSSO. Houlihan says Hickok has spoken at every CCSSO event for which his presence was requested. But that doesn’t mean the newer group has fallen off Hickok’s radar screen.

Since Mr. Bush took office, the ELC has received $3.5 million in grants from the Education Department, and Congress recently appropriated another $10 million through the department. Hickok says he had no influence on those spending decisions.

And though he isn’t cheek by jowl with the NEA, the national union’s relationship with Hickok is nowhere near as acrimonious as Hickok’s link with the state association. Though the NEA’s interaction with the department has been “limited,” Packer says, officials of the union have had meetings with both Paige and Hickok. In those meetings, Hickok has come across as “smooth and somewhat soothing,” says Packer. “He’s not overly confrontational.”

Ridge, who has now gone on to head the new federal Department of Homeland Security, originally floated Hickok’s name for U.S. secretary of education. Though Hickok didn’t get the No. 1 job—he’s making $142,500 a year as undersecretary —it’s no accident that Hickok is implementing the high-profile No Child Left Behind Act.

“I want to be where the action is,” Hickok says, sitting on a couch in his office, with a wall full of framed awards rising above his head.

But he doesn’t necessarily embrace the arena. A trim man who runs regularly to blow off steam, Hickok keeps a glass “jargon jar” on his table (currently sporting a few dollar bills), levying a $1 fine on anyone who utters a sentence like: “AYP is due FYI by COB.” (“AYP” is the policy mavens’ shorthand for the law’s “adequate yearly progress” mandate.) He returns home to his wife in Carlisle (population: 17,980) nearly every weekend. “I’m not a Washington insider,” he says. “I think I can do a good job at what I do because I’m rooted in something else.”

But he has the charm and polish of an insider, and the confidence to train his wit on himself. He jokes that he likes to sit at his desk, with the American flag on a stand behind him, his floor-to-ceiling windows affording a view of the U.S. Capitol over his shoulder and say, “I’m a very important man.”

Though he sees himself sticking with the administration to follow through on the new education law, he doesn’t expect to return to Dickinson College when his stint at the department is over.

“I would like to find a way to broaden my portfolio,” he says. “My field is really much broader than education.”

'I'm not a Washington insider. I think I can do a good job at what I do because I'm rooted in something else.'

During his work at the Heritage Foundation, Hickok studied and wrote about federalism and limiting the national government’s power. A framed copy of the “10 principles of federalism” hangs on his office wall, along with a signed picture of President Reagan, and one of the U.S. Supreme Court with signatures below the row of black robes.

Greenawalt, the political scientist at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, says he’s sure that the No Child Left Behind Act, and its raft of new federal dictates on the states, must at times make Hickok think twice.

“Education should be directed locally, but all too often there are few people that have the specialized knowledge needed,” Greenawalt says. “It’s the real intellectual quandary in education reform.”

In a 1990 Heritage Foundation paper, Hickok wrote that the U.S. Constitution “establishes a national government of limited and enumerated powers and reserves all other power not delegated to the national government to the states and the citizens.” He openly criticized Congress for overreaching into the realm of state and local government.

Hickok acknowledges a disconnect at times between his philosophical roots and his current responsibilities.

“If I were a purely ideological person, ... I’d have a hard time in any administration,” he says. “To govern requires a combination of political philosophy and pragmatism.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.


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