Arkansas Schools Chief Tapped For Federal K-12 Post

By Erik W. Robelen — October 01, 2003 3 min read

President Bush’s selection last week of Arkansas state schools chief Raymond Simon as the next assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education appears to be winning mostly favorable reviews, from his home state to the nation’s capital.

If his appointment is approved by the Senate, Mr. Simon, a former teacher and school administrator who has been the chief state school officer in Arkansas since 1997, will become a central player in the Department of Education’s implementation of the president’s signature education program, the No Child Left Behind Act.

“I’ve known Ray Simon for many years,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a prepared statement. “He’s a first-rate educator who’ll bring to this critical job the perspective of a leader who has managed large organizations and who, like me, is deeply committed to making sure every child in America receives a quality education.”

Mr. Simon would replace Susan B. Neuman, who abruptly resigned in January. Ronald J. Tomalis, the chief of staff to acting Deputy Secretary Eugene W. Hickok, was named acting assistant secretary in July.

“I think he is an excellent choice,” Kathy L. Morledge, the assistant executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, said of Mr. Simon. “He has been a great leader for us.”

The Arkansas Education Association also approved of the choice. A union official noted that the group hasn’t always agreed with Mr. Simon, but said that he had consistently been willing to listen. The teachers’ group has another reason to like him.

“When he was a classroom teacher, he was a member of the Arkansas Education Association, and was on the negotiating team for his local,” Sid Johnson, the president of the National Education Association affiliate, said in a statement. “We know that his heart is with the teachers and the students.”

Before Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, appointed him director of the Arkansas education agency, Mr. Simon, 58, was the superintendent of the 8,100-student Conway, Ark., public schools. He also served as an assistant superintendent there and was a longtime mathematics teacher at North Little Rock High School.

A Lifelong Educator

Mr. Simon’s biggest accomplishment as Arkansas’ schools chief, education analysts in the state say, was helping to create the state’s Smart Start and Smart Step programs. Smart Start is a broad-based program that aims to improve the reading and mathematics skills of children in grades K-4, and Smart Step is a similar program for grades 5-8.

State Sen. James B. Argue, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee in Arkansas, had high praise for Mr. Simon.

“Ray has earned the respect of many legislators, and I think it’s because he’s informed and he’s honest with the legislative branch,” he said.

However, some education policy changes pushed by Gov. Huckabee with support from Mr. Simon have proved controversial. For instance, plans to consolidate some of the smallest rural districts and high schools have ruffled feathers.

“I think for rural schools, there should be considerable concern that he has been a stalwart and somewhat unreasonable proponent of school consolidation and district consolidation,” said Marty Strange, who works in Vermont as the policy director for the Washington-based Rural School and Community Trust.

It is noteworthy that Mr. Simon is not a member of the Washington-based Education Leaders Council, a conservative-leaning group of state school officials with close ties to the Department of Education. Acting Deputy Secretary Hickok helped found that organization when he was Pennsylvania’s secretary of education.

In an interview, Mr. Simon said he expects that his experience dealing with the No Child Left Behind Act in Arkansas will be helpful if he’s confirmed.

“We have always been a supporter ... of No Child Left Behind,” he said.

While he expressed excitement about the opportunity in Washington, Mr. Simon said he would leave Arkansas reluctantly.

“I’ve spent 37 years, beginning my 38th year, in public education in Arkansas,” he said. “This is my home state.”

“He’s terrific, and he knows our stuff,” said Patricia F. Sullivan, an assistant executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington.

“He’ll be a good assistant secretary,” predicted Michael Cohen, who held the same job to which Mr. Simon has been named during the Clinton administration.

“He understands how federal programs look from the state level,” said Mr. Cohen—now the president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that promotes standards-based reform—"and what it takes to make them work, and how to keep the state’s own reform effort moving forward at the same time.”

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