Ed. Dept. Invests $500,000 In Team to Tout Its Agenda

By Michelle R. Davis — May 28, 2003 9 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education has quietly assembled an eight-person, half-million-dollar team of political appointees to promote the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 and, agency officials say, clear up misperceptions about it.

Headed by a former Bush campaign operative, the No Child Left Behind Communications and Outreach team began gearing up in February. Its work is in addition to that of the political and career employees who were already handling communications for the department.

Creation of the new team appears to some observers to be part of an effort to keep President Bush’s image as an education mover and shaker foremost in the minds of the voting public as the 2004 presidential-election year draws closer.

“For the first time, the Democratic advantage that we’ve seen over a quarter-century in education has almost disappeared,” said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Education is a big new advantage for Republicans, and George W. Bush is not going to see it squandered when it matters most.”

Education Department officials say the endeavors of the communications cadre are nothing new, but rather part of a continuing outreach effort since Mr. Bush signed the overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law early last year.

“This is not a new function; ... a lot of the work was done by other people at the outset,” said department spokesman Dan Langan. “This is the most significant education legislation, and it requires significant outreach.”

But this incarnation of the No Child Left Behind war room—seven of the members share space in the department’s headquarters—is certainly new. Seven of the group started at the department between February and April of this year. The squad is headed by Emily Kertz, a former Department of Commerce spokeswoman and Bush 2000 presidential campaign aide. The other members are:

  • Jennifer Coxe, a former spokeswoman for the unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial campaign of former Rep. Van Hilleary, R-Tenn.;

  • Jill Davie, a former aide in the White House office of legislative affairs;

  • Brady Newby, recently a spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee and, according to published reports, once an aide to former Vice President Dan Quayle;

  • Matt Wylie, a veteran staff worker for several Republican campaigns for Congress;

  • Samara Yudof, who started in the press office in March of 2002 and is the daughter of Mark Yudof, the chancellor of the University of Texas; and

  • Trey Bohn and Geoff Goodman. No information on their backgrounds was available, and the Education Department declined to provide any.

Salaries range from $32,736 for less experienced team members to $105,586 for Ms. Kertz, who reports to John Danielson, Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s chief of staff, Mr. Langan said. The salaries for all eight members total more than $507,000, he said.

The eight are Schedule C political appointees and do not require Senate confirmation.

Mr. Langan declined requests for interviews with both Ms. Kertz and Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, the department’s point man on the No Child Left Behind law.

Among the most visible results of the team’s efforts are daily “No Child Left Behind extra credit” e-mails sent out mainly to an electronic list of reporters and members of the education policy community. Those “extra credits” do everything from cite positive reports on the law in outside-the-Beltway newspapers to printing short “did you know?” facts about the law.

Some have highlighted what the Bush administration believes are errors or misconceptions about the No Child Left Behind law, reprinting politicians’ letters to editorial pages critical of those newspapers’ editorials. The troops scour clips from around the country daily, mining for nuggets perfect for buffing and highlighting—or correcting.

“Now we have the ability to combat misinformation and correct the record, and ultimately to better inform the public about the significance of this law,” Mr. Langan said.

Team members also work with Capitol Hill and at times act as spokespeople for the agency.

In addition, the group is coordinating appearances around the country by department officials spreading the word about the No Child Left Behind Act. The team, in other regular e-mails, has highlighted appearances by Mr. Hickok, as well as those by General Counsel Brian W. Jones and Nina Shokraii Rees, the head of the department’s new office of innovation and improvement—all officials whose schedules previously were not typically hyped.

“One of the things the outreach team is attempting to do is get the other principals in the department involved, ... to get them out on tour,” Mr. Langan said.

Behind the Curtain

But some observers see presidential campaign strategy also on the agenda.

Polls suggest that after passage of the No Child Left Behind law, Republicans narrowed the traditionally wide edge held by Democrats in public perceptions of the parties’ commitment to education. A CBS News/New York Times poll early this month found that while 44 percent of those polled thought Democrats were more likely to improve education, 38 percent gave the nod on that count to the GOP.

Other polls, however, reflect a growing concern over funding for the education law, as cash-strapped states confront its requirements. A national poll done earlier this year by Education Week and the Public Education Network found that 42 percent of those polled hadn’t heard of the new law. When informed about it, 75 percent believed more money will be needed to pay for it.

The Bush administration must combat those perceptions, said Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former aide to House Democrats.

“In foreign affairs, [Mr. Bush] can run on the Iraqi war, but domestically, other than tax cuts, there’s almost no other piece of domestic legislation he’s enacted,” Mr. Jennings said. “This is his domestic record.”

Mr. Langan said, however, that the creation of the new communications platoon was prompted by Secretary Paige, not the White House. But he added that “obviously education has been one of the president’s highest domestic priorities,” and that the White House “is very knowledgeable of what’s going on here.”

Mr. Sabato, however, detects the White House behind the curtain. “Karl Rove knows what George W. Bush’s advantages are going into the election campaign. This has their handiwork all over it,” Mr. Sabato said, referring to Mr. Bush’s longtime political aide and the White House.

The current administration is hardly unique, of course, in touting what it considers its successes. The Clinton administration, for example, pushed hard to highlight Goals 2000, its education reform program, said Michael Cohen, an assistant secretary of education under President Clinton.

“It’s stuff that all administrations do,” said Mr. Cohen, now the president of Achieve, a Washington based-group that promotes standards-based education.

But he and others also said that the resources devoted to the department’s new undertaking raise such efforts to another level. The department already had a communications staff of 10, including three political appointees.

“I’m surmising the current administration said business as usual is not up to the task, and they’re mounting a new campaign,” said Chester E. Finn, the president of the Thomas E. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant education secretary under President Reagan. “I find this praiseworthy rather than alarming.”

Rapid Response

Susan Traiman, the director of the education initiative at the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group of corporate leaders, said the outreach team’s quick-response ability is critical.

“You need to have people who have a responsibility to get out accurate information,” said Ms. Traiman, who recently met with Ms. Kertz to discuss ways of working together.

But the team’s success may depend on how the group walks the fine line between information dissemination and propaganda, Ms. Traiman said.

“It’s going to be very important that this is an honest voice coming out with correct information, but that also gives the point of view of what No Child Left Behind is trying to accomplish,” she said.

Some wonder which category the “extra credits” fall into. An April 1 e-mail missive said that the president’s proposed fiscal 2004 education budget, if enacted, would mean an increase of 41 percent in funding for Title I since the No Child Left Behind Act became law.

While that may be true, National Education Association lobbyist Joel Packer noted that for the past two years, Mr. Bush has requested significantly less for the program that aids disadvantaged students than Congress ultimately provided.

“If President Bush’s budget proposals for Title I for the last two years had been adopted by Congress, Title I would have at least $1.624 billion less than was actually appropriated,” Mr. Packer wrote in an e-mail interview.

And an April 16 “extra credit” pointed out that the new law doesn’t label any schools “failing,” though the word crops up repeatedly in newspaper stories.

The e-mail didn’t mention, however, that in prepared remarks before a Senate appropriations subcommittee last year, Secretary Paige used that very same description: “Parents of students in failing schools will have the option of transferring them to a better public school.”

Many education groups have heard little about the communications team and its push, but when informed of the efforts, their officials said the department could use its resources more wisely.

If the department is striving to reach a more widespread audience, especially teachers, Mr. Packer said the administration could talk more to the NEA, a traditionally pro-Democratic group with 2.7 million members. The organization has had “limited contact” with the Bush Education Department, Mr. Packer said.

Some Democrats—many of whom have decried what they see as a lack of administration support for sufficient funding for the far-reaching law—say they wish the department’s efforts were going in a different direction.

“We’re a little disappointed they’re not spending this money on a way to provide more support for the No Child Left Behind Act, instead of engaging in some artful public relations campaign,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, said the efforts of the outreach team may be wasted.

“It always strikes me as kind of silly and fruitless because the truth is ... that people locally don’t pay a lot of attention to that stuff,” he said. “I guess they feel if they don’t push their issue, it will somehow get left behind.”

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