As the Bush administration prepares the education agenda for its second term, personnel changes at Department of Education could play a decisive role in how effectively those plans are carried out.
The latest clues about the scope of the administration’s goals for K-12 education will come this week, when Margaret Spellings, President Bush’s nominee to become the next secretary of education, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Although Ms. Spellings will face questions from both Democrats and Republicans, she is expected to sail through the Jan. 6 hearing. Democrats on the education committee, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking minority member, have praised her, and there have been no signs of confirmation trouble.
“Whenever you have Senator Kennedy saying nice things, it’s a pretty good sign there’s not going to be a heated discussion,” said Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the outgoing chairman of the committee.
Ms. Osterberg said she expected the full Senate to confirm Ms. Spellings before the end of the month. The secretary-designate was Mr. Bush’s top education aide when he was governor of Texas and now serves in the White House as his chief domestic-policy adviser. (“President Picks a Trusted Aide for Secretary,” Nov. 24, 2004.)
But several other key Education Department positions also need to be filled, including the No. 2 post. Deputy Secretary Eugene W. Hickok announced in December he would be leaving the department this month.
The transition will be wholly unlike the one between President Bill Clinton’s first and second terms. Mr. Clinton’s education secretary, Richard W. Riley, served a full eight years, and much of Mr. Riley’s senior staff stayed on with him, at least to start the second term.
For the Education Department in President Bush’s second term, more slots need to be filled. Those include the commissioner of education statistics, a post held by by Robert Lerner until the Senate adjourned last month without voting on his recess appointment.
Ms. Osterberg said a hold was placed on Mr. Lerner’s nomination by Democrats, though which senator or senators placed it has not been disclosed. One possibility is that the hold was placed by Sen. Kennedy, who had already expressed serious reservations about Mr. Lerner’s qualifications.
Mr. Lerner said he was disappointed, but said he remains at the National Center for Education Statistics under a 120-day consulting agreement.
Mr. Lerner’s failure to win Senate confirmation was not unexpected. Mr. Bush’s nomination of Mr. Lerner in 2003 was greeted by objections from some education researchers, civil rights groups, and gay-rights organizations. (“Lerner’s Writings Raise Objectivity Concerns,” June 18, 2003.) The objections came in part to Mr. Lerner’s writings for conservative organizations and strong stands on social issues, which included challenging race-based college-admissions policies.
Under Mr. Lerner’s leadership, the NCES, which collects, analyzes, and reports education information and statistics, has tackled issues such as the test-score data of dropouts and the performance of charter schools. Mr. Lerner said he believes he has proved himself to his critics by being nonpartisan, “getting the best data and getting that data out as fast and as accurately as possible.”
“I hope that lots of people would see that I am not what people imagined I am,” he said.
He said he believes there is some chance he may be renominated by President Bush during the president’s second term.
“The chances are very good, as far as I’m aware,” he said.
Meanwhile, Brian W. Jones announced last month that he would step down as the Education Department’s general counsel. As the department’s chief legal officer, he helped shape the Bush administration’s position on affirmative action in education.
Mr. Jones said that on Jan. 24 he would begin work at the San Diego-based College Loan Corp., a student-loan provider. Mr. Jones will be based in Washington as the company’s executive vice president and general counsel.
Also, Kenneth L. Marcus, the acting head of the department’s office for civil rights, is leaving the Education Department to become the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (“Education in Focus for U.S. Civil Rights Commission,” this issue.)
The department’s shuffling and the lag time between departures and appointments could mean a slow start out of the block during President Bush’s second term, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former Democratic congressional aide on education.
“People will take very tentative steps and will be afraid to be too public,” he said. “Things will proceed, but I don’t think you’re going to be seeing any major decisions” in the beginning.
Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that advocates strong academic standards, and a former assistant education secretary under President Clinton, said the process of getting people in place could take up to six months.
“It’s always harder to get things done when you don’t have a full team,” he said. “That’s not to say they ought to set their sights lower; it’s just more difficult.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Spellings to Face Senate Panel This Week