Federal

Agency Tweaking Puts Added Focus On School Choice

By David J. Hoff — September 25, 2002 5 min read
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The Department of Education created two new high-level offices last week that will promote the Bush administration’s agenda for school choice and homeland security.

The new structure will raise the profile of vouchers and other educational innovations, officials said in announcing the restructuring, and it will coordinate the department’s efforts to help schools prepare for potential terrorism and other threats. It will also give a higher priority to anti-drug- abuse programs.

Such a focus on the topics at the top of the administration’s priority list “will free up other offices to focus on their core missions,” according to the department.

The changes, which do not require congressional approval, mark the biggest attempt by the 20-month-old Bush administration to put its stamp on the Education Department and realign the agency to match administration priorities. Such restructuring is common in the federal bureaucracy, Washington observers say.

But this one is noteworthy for the Education Department, they say, because the new offices are high up in the agency’s organization chart, and one of the offices will be led by a prominent and well-connected advocate of school choice.

Nina Shokraii Rees, an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and a former education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, will head the new “office of innovation and improvement.”

Eric G. Andell, a former Texas appeals court judge and a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, will run the new “office of safe and drug-free schools.”

Ms. Rees and Mr. Andell will both have the title of deputy undersecretary—a job title that has occasionally been employed by previous secretaries of education when assigning new jobs to aides and does not require Senate confirmation. About 200 employees will be transferred from other sections of the department to work in the new offices.

Diverse Portfolio

Ms. Rees’ job will be to manage a diverse portfolio of programs, addressing issues such as charter schools and public school choice, as well as such academic areas as the education of gifted and talented students. The office will assist the department’s office of elementary and secondary education in implementing the public-school-choice and supplementary-services provisions of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. (“States Suffer Halting Start on Tutoring,” this issue.)

Her most prominent role may be as the department’s chief spokeswoman and advocate for school choice.

“We really want to encourage, at the highest levels, thinking creatively, differently,” Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, who will oversee the new offices, said in an interview. The office of innovation and improvement, he acknowledged, “certainly is there to promote an agenda, ... and the agenda is more choices.”

By raising the profile of school choice, the department appears to be trying to respond to some conservatives’ concerns that the No Child Left Behind Act is expanding the federal government’s role in schools by mandating the content of state- testing programs, according to one Washington observer.

“It’s a way to reassure conservatives that ... the federal government will ensure that what they are concerned about will be part of the package,” said Jack Jennings, the director of Center on Education Policy and a former aide to House Democrats.

Mr. Jennings added that the department could have created a similar office to focus on teacher quality, also a major part of the No Child Left Behind Act, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including such major programs as Title I.

“They didn’t do that because it doesn’t resonate as clearly with conservatives,” he suggested.

But the move may backfire, Mr. Jennings said, because educators—some of whom consider themselves conservatives—may start to question whether President Bush is going to live up to his promises to improve public schools, or whether he is trying to undermine them to bolster the case for expanding vouchers.

“They’ll wonder, ‘Where’s the president? Doesn’t he really want to improve public schools?’” Mr. Jennings said.

Historical Precedents

Past administrations have instituted new bureaucratic arms for their agendas, one historian of education said last week. President Reagan formed a small office of private education, and the Clinton administration created a branch to manage its Goals 2000 education reform program.

While those efforts played a significant role early in those administrations, their prominence faded as other educational issues replaced them as priorities, said Maris A. Vinovskis, a professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

But the new restructuring may be different, he added, given Ms. Rees’ experience as a school choice advocate in the late 1990s at the Heritage Foundation, her role as a member of President Bush’s transition team, and her contacts at the White House developed while working for Mr. Cheney.

“I have a feeling that this is more than symbolic,” Mr. Vinovskis said. “I’d be surprised if [Ms. Rees] accepted this job if it didn’t have some potential. It’s got the potential— politically and otherwise—to go off in lots of different directions.”

Most of the new programs for the new offices will be shifted from the department’s office of elementary and secondary education and its office of educational research and improvement.

The new office of safe and drug-free schools will include the existing program of the same name, which until now was a division of the K-12 office, and will also inherit programs for school counselors and physical education from that office. And it will take over a correctional education program from the department’s office of vocational and adult education.

The office also will be responsible for helping schools prepare for emergencies such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks, Mr. Paige said in the announcement of the new structure.

In addition to school choice programs, the office of innovation and improvement will consist of programs for gifted and talented students, arts education, and American history. It will also manage the Troops-to-Teachers and Transition to Teaching programs. The office of nonpublic education will also be transferred into the new office.

Previous reorganizations have been completed without congressional approval because federal law gives the education secretary wide authority to make appointments and establish the organizational structure of the department.

“To the best of our knowledge, there’s no congressional role in this,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

“It’s somewhat ironic,” Mr. Manley added, “that they’re creating new levels of the bureaucracy.”

Staff Writer Erik W. Robelen contributed to this report.

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