School & District Management

Spellings Puts Her Stamp on Department

By Michelle R. Davis — March 11, 2005 8 min read

The Department of Education is revamping its structure in a move that some say reflects a more logical division of duties and the new management style of its leader.

The reorganization will create two new offices headed by assistant secretaries, including one for communications, and gathers most K-12 programs under the deputy secretary while putting postsecondary and vocational programs in the undersecretary’s hands.

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The changes, announced in a March 4 memo and slated to unfold over the next several weeks, mean that the heads of eight major departmental offices, plus the deputy secretary and the undersecretary, will report directly to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was confirmed in January. Previously, only five major offices had a direct line to the secretary.

“I believe this proposed structure will add great value in the way we do business and how we serve our customers,” Ms. Spellings wrote in a March 4 memo regarding the changes.

Under the reorganization, the new assistant secretaries will lead, respectively, an Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, which will manage policy development throughout the Education Department, and an Office of Communications and Outreach. The latter office will coordinate all the department’s external relations, including dealings with the press, education groups, and other government agencies. The assistant secretaries, who had not been named as of press time last week, will require Senate confirmation.

Another significant change is the division of responsibilities between the department’s deputy secretary and undersecretary, the No. 2 and No. 3 posts, respectively. The deputy secretary will be responsible mainly for K-12 education, including the No Child Left Behind Act, while the undersecretary will be responsible mainly for higher education and adult programs.

Hands-On Manager?

“The effect of this reorganization remains to be determined,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank aligned with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “What’s obvious to me is that Secretary Spellings is tightening her grip on key functions.”

It’s typical for a new leader to put his or her stamp on a federal agency, said Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

“Whenever somebody comes in that’s new, they’re going to want to set up the organization to suit their management style,” she said.

Having come from the White House, where she was Mr. Bush’s domestic policy adviser and had a small staff to manage, Ms. Spellings may be accustomed to being hands-on. And considering her central role in helping to craft the No Child Left Behind Act “it would make sense that she’d want to be more involved in the implementation,” Ms. Kafer said.

Under Ms. Spellings’ plan, the deputy secretary will focus on K-12 education, including such areas as the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s High School Initiative, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school choice issues, and English-language acquisition. Other department programs involving Hispanic education, American Indian education, and a math and science initiative will also be under the deputy secretary’s supervision. Eugene W. Hickok, who as deputy secretary was a leading player in carrying out the No Child Left Behind Act, left the department in January.

The undersecretary will take charge of higher education and adult education policy and federal student aid, in addition to initiatives on historically black colleges and universities and tribal colleges and universities. Edward R. McPherson, the current undersecretary, will become a senior adviser to the secretary.

Vocational education, despite being primarily a precollegiate program, will also fall under the purview of the undersecretary. That move, coupled with a proposal from President Bush to eliminate funding for vocational education programs, has some education advocates worried.

“We’re concerned about any moves by the department regarding career and technical education, and what it really means for the … high school portion, which is so important,” said Christin M. Driscoll, the senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education, based in Alexandria, Va. “We hope that a focus on the high school portion can be maintained.”

Some major offices in the department, such as the general counsel, the inspector general, and the office for civil rights, will continue to report directly to the secretary.

The concept of splitting many departmental responsibilities along K-12 and higher education lines makes sense, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

“The overall idea has a lot to be said for it,” said Mr. Jennings, a former top education aide to House Democrats. “But every organization is human and has a history. I don’t know whether the right people will be in place.”

As of last week, the department had not indicated who would end up in the deputy secretary’s and undersecretary’s posts. However, the name of Raymond J. Simon, now the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, has often been floated as a possibility for deputy secretary, and the new lineup of responsibilities would seem to fit his background.

Secretary Spellings took office in January after serving as President Bush’s chief domestic-policy aide. Because she is new to her job, a reorganization allows her to shuffle and add personnel in a way that can play to the strengths of those she has in mind, said Maris A. Vinovskis, an education historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Improving Efficiency

But reorganizations of federal departments can be risky too, Mr. Vinovskis said. “The reorganization takes a lot of time and energy, and that energy might well be spent on other initiatives and other tasks,” he said. “The question is: ‘What do you gain?’ ”

One central change is the formation of the new communications office, which will lump together media-relations functions, internal communications, and the current office of intergovernmental and interagency affairs, which acts as a liaison to states and non-governmental organizations.

The new office will end the “decentralized and fragmented” communications efforts of the department that Secretary Spellings believes is in place now, said David Dunn, her chief of staff, in a telephone press conference on March 4.

The new communications office comes on the heels of several embarrassing episodes stemming from the Education Department’s public relations efforts.

Last year, the department sent out several video news releases—video packages made to look like independent news reports—promoting Bush administration programs.

Earlier this year, the department acknowledged that under a contract with a public relations firm, it had paid a conservative pundit more than $200,000, in part to help promote the No Child Left Behind Act. Armstrong Williams, a newspaper columnist who has his own syndicated television show, did not reveal the arrangement in columns that he wrote or while opining about the federal education law on cable-TV shows. Federal lawmakers were outraged, and Ms. Spellings vowed to make sure nothing similar happened on her watch. (“Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized,” Jan. 19, 2005)

“Secretary Spellings made it very clear from the start that she’s going to improve the efficiency of this organization, and that includes getting to the bottom of the issues surrounding the PR contracts,” Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said in an e-mail last week.

While the controversies were no doubt a consideration in creating the new communications office, they were likely not the only factor. The department realizes it has an uphill public relations battle ahead, said Mr. Jennings. It must try to sell the public on the president’s high school plan, which includes increased testing at that level, and continue efforts to inform people about the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The administration is very attuned to getting their story out,” Mr. Jennings said. “Everything comes back to No Child Left Behind. That’s their biggest challenge.”

Mr. Hickok, the former deputy secretary, said the department faces significant hurdles in educating the public about the federal school accountability law.

“The greatest challenges with No Child Left Behind have always been explaining it at the grassroots level and getting around the filters of the organizations and groups,” he said. “They’re trying to be proactive in public affairs as opposed to reactive.”

The new policy-development office will coordinate the crafting of policy across offices as proposals work their way through the department for final decisions, Mr. Dunn said. The office will also supervise the departmental unit that oversees and drafts the budget, the strategic-accountability service, which monitors performance programs and results-based data initiatives, and coordinate educational technology. The policy office will ensure that “all of the various program offices impacted or with a stake in these policies are going to have a seat at the table from the beginning to ensure both that the decisions are well informed on the front end, but then that everybody is moving forward, once the decision is final,” Mr. Dunn said.

Other changes in the restructuring plan include the addition of a new senior adviser to Ms. Spellings to oversee grants, loans, contracts, and related services. That is the job that Mr. McPherson, the current undersecretary, will fill.

Despite the numerous changes in the organization chart, work is expected to continue as usual for most of the Education Department’s more than 4,400 employees. In the March 4 memo to department staff members, Ms. Spellings said most employees’ duties would not change.

“We do not anticipate that the actual work of many of the program areas will change substantially,” she wrote.

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Staff Writer Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Spellings Puts Her Stamp on Department

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