Federal

Department’s No. 2 Official Stepping Down

By Michelle R. Davis — June 11, 2003 7 min read
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Deputy Secretary of Education William D. Hansen announced his intention last week to resign, effective July 4, from the Department of Education’s No. 2 job. He cited family-related considerations.

William D. Hansen

The announcement came about a week after Carol D’Amico made public her own plans to resign as the agency’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education.

It also closely followed President Bush’s announcement last week that he will nominate Robert Lerner, a social scientist with a history of doing research on hot-button issues, to head the National Center for Education Statistics for a six-year term.

In a June 5 interview, Mr. Hansen, with six children ages 8 to 21, said the difficulty of juggling his professional duties and family life was a central factor in his decision.

“I’ve got a lot of family obligations that don’t always jibe with the job I have at the department,” he said.

Several people who know Mr. Hansen said related financial considerations—especially college costs for his children—were also a key factor. As deputy secretary, his salary is set by statute at $154,700 a year. Those friends and acquaintances stressed that the departure had nothing to do with internal agency politics.

The deputy secretary declined to say what his next job would be. He said he would make that news public in a few weeks, but noted that his preference was to stay in the Washington area.

Mr. Hansen, 44, shed some light on his plans in a June 5 letter of resignation to President Bush.

“We have accomplished much but now it is time for me to focus my energy on my family, including my own six children,” he wrote. “I look forward to continuing this work for children in the private sector.”

Vic Klatt, a former top education aide to Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and a friend of Mr. Hansen’s, said he was sorry to see him go.

“Him not being there leaves a big hole,” he said. Mr. Hansen knew the agency well, Mr. Klatt said, having served there under President Reagan and the first President Bush. “He knows how to navigate all the various bureaucratic hurdles over there.”

Dan Langan, a spokesman for the Education Department, said Mr. Hansen’s responsibilities were wide- ranging. “His role can be compared to that of a chief operating officer,” he said. Mr. Hansen has been responsible for the internal management and daily operations of the department.

He played a leading role in management- improvement efforts, had oversight of the agency’s management and budget offices, and was “very involved in policymaking across the board,” Mr. Langan said.

A ‘Skilled Manager’

A former executive with a student-loan trade association, Mr. Hansen said he was especially proud of his work in pushing the department to streamline many of its operations and tighten its financial oversight—an accomplishment noted by several observers of the agency. A few months ago, independent auditors gave the department its first “clean” audit report in six years.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige had high praise for his deputy in a statement last week.

“Bill is a quiet giant who set a high standard for us all and earned the respect of career and political staff throughout the department,” Mr. Paige said in a statement. “He is a skilled manager, a trusted adviser, and a great friend to me.”

While Mr. Hansen is known to be politically conservative, he’s admired by more than just Republicans.

“It’s a shame,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former longtime aide to House Democrats. “Bill Hansen’s a good person. He’s just a solid person; he’s not flashy.”

Mr. Hansen demurred when asked if Undersecretary Eugene W. Hickok, the department’s third-ranking executive, might ascend to his position. “That’s the president’s job” to decide, he said.

Some doubted that Mr. Hickok would want the slot, at least with its current job description.

“I wouldn’t think that Gene would covet a management and budget job,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Nonetheless, Mr. Hickok “very likely” will be named to the position, according to an education expert with ties to the department, but would continue his focus on education policy rather than taking on Mr. Hansen’s management duties.

Statistics Nominee

Meanwhile, President Bush has named Mr. Lerner, a partner in the Lerner and Nagai Quantitative Consulting firm, based in Rockville, Md., to become the commissioner of education statistics for a term expiring in June 2009.

The much-awaited nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, could help bring lasting leadership to the NCES, which has been without a permanent head since June of 1999.

But Mr. Lerner’s nomination could set off sparks within the research community and without.

Several researchers pointed out that Mr. Lerner has done little research in K-12 education. And some advocacy groups expressed concerns over Mr. Lerner’s studies on affirmative action and issues involving homosexuality, and said they were still looking at his background.

“What we have learned so far raises some issues about his qualifications to be the steward of the nation’s education statistics,” said Eliza Byard, the deputy executive director of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, based in New York City.

But Mr. Finn, who served as the department’s assistant secretary for research during the Reagan administration, said having a social scientist running the NCES"an understander of statistics as opposed to someone who just gathers them"—could be a boon.

According to the White House, Mr. Lerner served for a year as faculty associate for the department of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University’s school of hygiene and public health. He has done research and taught at Smith College and Syracuse University. Mr. Lerner earned a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College and a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

Though the NCES is meant to be insulated from political influence as it deals with education data, politics can certainly affect confirmation of the NCES commissioner by the Senate.

‘Superheated’ Environment

Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the American Educational Research Association, said the work of social scientists can become controversial “in a superheated, political environment.”

Mr. Lerner has often stepped into those environments. Along with his partner, Althea Nagai, Mr. Lerner has weighed in on affirmative action in higher education, for example. They recently published a study that showed serious racial tension and polarization on the University of Michigan campus.

That study was done for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Sterling, Va., that is headed by Linda Chavez, a former Bush nominee for secretary of labor who is a prominent opponent of racial preferences.

The University of Michigan’s race-based admissions policies are under scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court. Michigan officials argue that racial and ethnic diversity is good for the university.

Other studies by Mr. Lerner have criticized multiculturalism in liberal arts education. And a book Mr. Lerner co-wrote about parenting by same-sex couples, No Basis: What the Studies Don’t Tell Us About Same-Sex Parenting, has been labeled “anti-gay” by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Richard Hershman, the vice president for legislative affairs for the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, a Washington-based trade organization for education research, said that “it’s critically important to have a leader of NCES who is credible and nonbiased, as the law requires.”

Ms. D’Amico, meanwhile, who is stepping down as assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said she plans to return to her home state of Indiana, after her resignation becomes final on June 30.

In an interview, she joked about using the common explanation for departures from government, that of wanting to spend more time with her family. But, like Mr. Hansen, she said it applies truthfully to her situation. She took her job at the department only a few weeks after getting married, and she said she wants to be closer to her husband, who still lives in Indiana.

Ms. D’Amico, 50, who was a dean at Ivy Tech State College in Evansville, Indiana, before coming to the department in 2001, said that she did not have a job in hand, but that a position in academia, a think tank, or a state agency was possible.

Ms. D’Amico presided over the Bush administration’s aggressive march toward aligning vocational programs with the academic mandates of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. She also demanded that vocational programs prove their worth through hard data, observers said.

Those philosophies took shape when the department unveiled plans to overhaul its vocational programs in the 2004 budget year.

Departures such as those of Mr. Hansen and Ms. D’Amico are not surprising to Paul C. Light, an expert on the presidential-appointment process at New York University and the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.

“This is the usual time for political appointees to start exiting,” Mr. Light said, with the campaign for the 2004 presidential election getting under way. The tenure of the two departing officials was not especially short.

“Unfortunately, it’s 18 to 24 months on average,” he said.

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