School & District Management

Whither the Ed. Dept.’s Innovation Office?

By Michelle R. Davis — January 24, 2006 6 min read
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With the departure this month of the first head of the Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement, those who follow the 3½-year-old-office are wondering whether it will continue to play a prominent role in federal policy or whether its influence will fade.

Nina Shokraii Rees, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and a former education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, had led the office since its creation in 2002 by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige. She had used her position to champion ideas such as charter schools, public school choice, and private school vouchers. With her departure on Jan. 13 for a job with a private education company, the innovation office’s role within the Education Department remains to be seen.

“It’s likely that office will continue to do what it has always done as part of the larger policy goals of this administration,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington organization that advocates charter schools. “How strong and bold, and how much use of the bully pulpit will be made to support choice-related reforms, will be largely a function of who next takes the position.”

Chris Doherty, who had been chief of staff to Deputy Secretary Raymond J. Simon and was overseeing the Reading First program, is acting as the deputy undersecretary in charge of the office.

Office of Innovation and Improvement

The 3½-year-old office of innovation and improvement is described on the Department of Education’s Web site as the agency’s “nimble, entrepreneurial arm.” It oversees several programs, including many involving school choice.

Parental options and charter schools:
The office encourages the expansion of educational options such as charter schools, magnet schools, and voluntary public school choice. It works with community organizations to inform parents of their options under the No Child Left Behind Act. And it encourages the establishment of charter schools through planning and start-up funding for facilities.

NCLB choice and tutoring:
The office oversees the NCLB law’s provisions for public school choice and supplemental educational services for students in schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress.

District of Columbia vouchers:
It monitors the 1½-year-old federal experiment with private school vouchers in the nation’s capital.

Other programs:
The office is also home to several older Education Department programs, including the office of nonpublic education, technology-in-education programs, teacher-quality programs, and the family-policy-compliance office.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Some observers say the momentum behind the office’s creation has gone by the wayside since Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings took the helm of the department a year ago.

“I think it’s been clear for over a year that school choice and charter schools have not been top priorities for Secretary Spellings,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Ms. Rees’ former deputy in the innovation office.

Ms. Spellings’ “whole history is around standards and accountability, and that’s where her passion is,” Mr. Petrilli said. “I don’t think she has the same fire in her belly around choice and charter schools.”

When Mr. Paige created the office of innovation and improvement and appointed Ms. Rees to lead it, the goal was to raise the profile of private school vouchers and other educational innovations. By most accounts, Ms. Rees succeeded.

‘Totally Committed’

She forged strong relationships with charter school supporters and her office provided $216 million in seed money to help charter schools get off the ground. After Hurricane Katrina in late August, Ms. Rees was instrumental in helping to get $20 million in federal education funds released to help charter schools in New Orleans.

“Finding $20 million and getting it out the door quickly is not an easy task,” Ms. Rees said in an interview on Jan. 12, just after her departure was announced.

Ms. Rees also reached out to private companies providing the supplemental educational services required under the No Child Left Behind Act at some public schools labeled “in need of improvement.” The law calls for schools and districts to meet annual educational goals or face sanctions, including the requirement that students have access to free tutoring.

Under Ms. Rees, the innovation office worked with school choice groups and parent-resource centers to spread the word about the various options parents had under the law, such as tutoring and school transfers. The office began an electronic newsletter to highlight innovations both in the private sector and in public schools.

“Nina really shaped that department,” said Howard Fuller, the board chairman of the Washington-based Black Alliance for Educational Options, which promotes school choice. “She was totally committed to making sure that parents had options.”

Arguably the office’s biggest success was its successful push for a federal voucher program. The Opportunity Scholarship Program, approved by Congress in 2004, is a $12 million fund that provides private school tuition vouchers to some 1,700 District of Columbia students this year.

Ms. Rees said she was particularly proud of helping push the program through.“There’s something rewarding about advocating for choice at a think tank and then being in a position where you can act on it,” she said.

But those accomplishments may have run their course, some say.

“With her gone, it leaves a vacuum,” said Steve Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association, a Washington trade association representing for-profit education businesses. “Nina was the torch bearer of … the flames of innovation.”

Forging Ahead or Fading?

The office’s future influence remains a question mark. Though Ms. Rees is credited with making inroads in the area of education innovation, “the federal government is still really on the sidelines in terms of supporting the cutting-edge stuff that is happening out there,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of Education Sector, a nonpartisan education think tank in Washington, who served as a White House aide under President Clinton.

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, said Ms. Rees was an “extremely effective advocate” for the Bush administration’s policies on school choice. Without knowing who will replace her, it’s unclear how effective the office will be, he added.

But Mr. Packer said he believes that under Mr. Rees’s leadership, the office overemphasized school choice “to the detriment of teacher quality, parental involvement,” and other programs. The NEA disagrees with the Bush administration’s pro-charter, pro-voucher stance.

With two of the most influential personalities in the innovation office—Ms. Rees and Mr. Petrilli—gone, some worry that the office’s clout both inside and outside the department could fade.

Because the office is relatively new, “it’s hard to look past Nina and see what that office is going to be,” said Jeffrey Cohen, the president of Baltimore-based Catapult Learning, a tutoring provider. “My hope is that the office is going to become a permanent fixture in the Department of Education and have a long line of leaders pursuing education initiatives.”

The office was critical under Ms. Rees, said Clint A. Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice. “I don’t know how central it will be in the future.”

Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman, said he could not comment on the innovation office’s future beyond saying that “its mission hasn’t changed.”

Mr. Petrilli said whoever permanently replaces Ms. Rees needs to be an activist in the department for the needs of charter schools.

“Charters are alive and breathing, but the way the Department of Education does its business doesn’t always help them to be successful,” he said.

Ms. Rees, who plans to start her job in the Washington office of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Knowledge Universe Inc. on Jan. 30, said she hopes the innovation office will continue to help promote the exchange of data between public schools and private education businesses, particularly on supplemental services.

She hopes that when the No Child Left Behind Act is reauthorized in 2007, the supplemental-service provisions are “fine-tuned … to make the climate a little bit better for all interested parties.”

Ms. Rees said she would advise her successor to use the office’s institutional knowledge and make sure to tap into local concerns.

“When you’re at the federal level, it’s hard to see what’s happening at the district level,” she said. “Having direct lines of communication is very helpful.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Whither the Ed. Dept.’s Innovation Office?

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