School & District Management

Tangled in Politics, Statistics Position Remains in Limbo

By Joetta L. Sack — February 06, 2002 7 min read
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The job, in theory at least, is supposed to be above politics. The basic data of education, the thinking goes, are too important to be subject to partisan pressure and whims.

But politics by most accounts resulted in the forced departure in 1999 of the last permanent U.S. commissioner of education statistics, and have been no small factor in the job, which has remained in the hands of an interim commissioner since then.

Now, some researchers are wondering why the Bush White House, in its 13th month in power, still has not named a new head for the National Center for Education Statistics.

The commissioner, who in the regular course of events would be appointed by the president to a four-year term and confirmed by the Senate, oversees a wide variety of education data- gathering, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The job is typically held by a veteran education researcher, sometimes as a capstone to a career.

But the NCES could be at risk of losing prestige if a new commissioner is not appointed soon, some scholars and other observers say.

“Not having a director is really difficult for an agency, and potentially devastating,” said Andrew Porter, the director of the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I’m very, very worried.”

The American Educational Research Association has urged the administration to take action on the post, but has gotten no response, said Gerald E. Sroufe, the interim executive director of the 23,000- member,Washington-based organization.

“We’ve tried to get people to take an interest in it,” he said of the absence of a nomination. “It is a great vacuum and has been since [former Commissioner Pascal D. Forgione Jr.] left” in June 1999.

The NCES commissioner, who reports to the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, oversees the main federal databases in education. Since Mr. Forgione’s departure, Gary W. Phillips, a career employee of the department, has filled the position on an acting basis.

The Education Department will provide more information on its plans for the job in the coming weeks, when Congress begins hearings on reauthorizing education research programs, said Daniel Langan, a spokesman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Mr. Langan added, “I will simply say that every appointed position is a priority, and we will work to fill those positions as soon as possible.”

Politics of Data

Although the job is intended to be insulated from politics, the commissioner undergoes the same process of background checks, nomination, and confirmation as other top-level political appointees. Anyone nominated for the job must be approved by the Senate, which in many cases is a long and arduous process.

And Mr. Forgione, for one, would quibble with the idea that the job is—or can be—removed from politics. Politics, in fact, had a lot to do with his being available in 1999 to take his current job as the superintendent of the 78,000-student Austin, Texas, school district.

Mr. Forgione, a respected researcher and former state schools chief in Delaware before becoming commissioner, was popular with the research community. But he squabbled with the Clinton administration on how to release data, most notably after then-Vice President Al Gore in 1998 announced new scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress at a high- profile event.

Mr. Gore’s actions led to allegations from Congress, Mr. Forgione, and others that the Clinton administration was improperly politicizing the data. The Clinton administration later blocked Mr. Forgione’s renomination after it was discovered that he had filed federal income-tax returns late. (“Renomination Blocked, Forgione To Depart,” May 26, 1999.)

Mr. Forgione says that the release of data, not the design or collection, has perennially been the most politically combustible element of his former post. The job, he said in an interview last week, is intrinsically tied up in politics because the commissioner must work with both elected officials and educators to determine what education statistics are needed and how to collect such data. But he said the commissioner must stand firm and control the release of the numbers.

Administration officials “have to know you will not give in,” he said. “And that can be lonely at times, when you want to be on the team.”

During the Clinton administration, Mr. Forgione said, he often collected data that would be used to design a new program or propose changes to an existing law. But, he said, to preclude the administration from allowing its political priorities to color the data, he tried to present the results before the administration had designed its proposals.

“Collecting data is part of the game,” he said. “If it’s objective and done with integrity, people will accept that.”

Marshall S. Smith, who served as undersecretary and acting deputy secretary of education in the Clinton administration, agreed that the commissioner’s post is affected by politics, but denied that the administration ever tried to politicize data. And the administration’s decision not to renominate Mr. Forgione, he said, did not grow from the incident with Mr. Gore.

President Clinton, after Mr. Forgione’s departure, attempted to fill the position, nominating testing researcher Lauress L. Wise II for the job in February 2000. But the Senate education committee, then under the control of Republicans, did not take action on the election-year nomination.

Mr. Wise said in an interview last month that he had been warned that it was difficult to get nominations approved at the end of a presidential term, and that he was not surprised by the inaction. Instead, Mr. Wise said, he suggested that Mr. Phillips be nominated, given his expertise and experience.

But now, with less than two years remaining in a term that began June 21, 1999, it appears to have grown increasingly difficult to persuade someone to take the job. The appointee can be renominated at the end of the term, but candidates nonetheless have shied away.

“There were some very fine people willing to consider the position, but as it didn’t get filled, they withdrew their names,” Mr. Sroufe of the researchers’ association said.

Although Mr. Phillips, the acting commissioner, is widely praised by his colleagues in the research community, they contend that an acting director does not hold the same clout as someone who has gone through the appointment and confirmation process.

For instance, they say, an acting head of an Education Department office has a more difficult time setting long-term priorities and negotiating for internal funding and staffing than would a full-fledged appointee.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, was an assistant secretary for research during the Reagan administration and is credited by many observers with improving the quality of the data the NCES produced. Mr. Finn said that research and compilation of statistics are the most important federal functions in education. Despite the White House’s inaction on the commissioner’s post, he believes many Bush administration officials agree.

“If you asked President Bush, he would give you a very earnest statement that this is of top importance,” Mr. Finn said. “There’s a bit of a paradox [in the delayed appointment], and I can’t explain it.”

This spring, Congress will begin work on a bill to reauthorize the federal law governing the department’s research, and that measure potentially could restructure the NCES.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., plans to reintroduce a proposal that would extend the term of the commissioner to six years and give the commissioner more authority in hiring staff and collecting data.

As the chairman of the House subcommittee on education reform, Mr. Castle has been concerned about the quality of research coming from the NCES, according to an aide, and he plans to put the research reauthorization on a front burner this year.

Aside from the commissioner’s post, the Bush administration is still awaiting Senate confirmation of Gerald Reynolds, nominated to become the assistant secretary for civil rights, and Jack Martin, nominated to be the agency’s chief financial officer. The administration also has selected William Leidinger to be the assistant secretary for management and Sally Stroup to be the postsecondary education chief, but has not yet filed the paperwork officially nominating them.

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Tangled in Politics, Statistics Position Remains in Limbo


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