Ed. Dept. Officials’ Roots Run Deep in Heart of Texas

By Michelle R. Davis — August 29, 2006 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Though the Department of Education is located in the heart of Washington, its corridors echo with the distinctive twang of Texas.

That accent starts at the top with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who originally hails from Houston and left Austin, the state capital, to head to Washington. And at least 10 current or recent high-ranking Education Department officials, all political appointees, call Texas their home state. Many more Texans, including first-term Secretary of Education Rod Paige, have passed through the department during President Bush’s administration, leaving their cowboy bootprints on federal education policy since 2001.

To some observers, this “Texas mafia,” in which many top officials have experience with the same state educational system, has stifled the range of education innovations given serious consideration and created a lopsided view of federal education policy. To others, it’s customary for a president—and a secretary of education—to hire people from back home whose skills they admire.

President Bush, a former governor of Texas, has often been accused of insulating himself with Texans in the White House, though in recent months his administration appears to have made a conscious effort to dispel that perception by hiring from other states for prominent positions.

However, the Education Department has remained heavy with Texans at the top.

“It’s natural to get people the secretary has worked with and known before,” said Christopher T. Cross, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, who grew up in Ohio and now lives in northern California. “What’s unusual here is the alignment between the president, the secretary, and the people underneath. In the history of the department, I don’t believe we’ve had this situation where so many people have a … common philosophy and a common experience.”

A Skewed View?

There may well be more Texans at the Education Department and related administration panels than cowboy hats in a Fort Worth dance hall.


The Bush administration has a long list of Texans with experience in the Department of Education or in other key education policy roles. Individuals are grouped by their native Texas city, or the one with which they are most closely associated.

  • Austin

    David L. Dunn

    David L. Dunn, chief of staff and acting undersecretary

    Larry Faulkner, chairman of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel

    Katherine McLane, press secretary

  • Dallas

    Kevin F. Sullivan

    Thomas W. Luce III, outgoing assistant secretary for the office of planning and evaluation

    Kevin F. Sullivan, former assistant secretary for communications and outreach, a Chicago native who spent 20 years in Dallas

    Sandy Kress, a former White House education adviser to President Bush who had a big hand in crafting the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001

  • Houston

    Charles Miller

    Margaret Spellings, secretary of education

    Charles Miller, chairman of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education

    Rod Paige, former secretary of education

    SOURCE: Education Week

Besides Ms. Spellings, there’s David L. Dunn, the secretary’s chief of staff and the acting undersecretary of education, who comes from Austin. Thomas W. Luce III, a Dallas lawyer who became the assistant secretary for the office of planning and evaluation, recently announced he’ll be returning to Texas in September but will still be a consultant to the secretary.

The list of Lone Star Staters at the department also includes: Tracy Young, the acting assistant secretary for the office of communications and outreach, who grew up in Euless, Texas; Kerri Briggs, a senior adviser in the office of the deputy secretary, who was born in Midland; Kathleen Leos, the assistant deputy secretary and director for the office of English-language acquisition, of Dallas; Adam Chavarria, a native of Harlingen, who left Dallas for Washington and is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and is considered a senior Education Department official; Darla A. Marburger of Austin, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy in elementary and secondary education; and Katherine McLane, the department’s new press secretary, who hails from Austin.

When it comes to key members of boards and panels, the department also has: Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board and a senior research fellow at the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin; Charles Miller, a Houston investor who is chairman of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education; and Larry Faulkner, the former chancellor of the University of Texas at Austin, who is the chairman of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

Kevin F. Sullivan, a Chicago native who spent two decades in Dallas and spent the last year at the Education Department as the assistant secretary for communications and outreach, left at the end of July to become the White House communications director.

The current list doesn’t include a slew of education-oriented Texans who have long since moved on from the Bush administration, including Mr. Paige, who previously was the superintendent of the Houston school district; Susan K. Sclafani, a former assistant secretary for vocational and adult education; Beth Ann Bryan, a senior adviser to Mr. Paige; and Sandy Kress, a former White House education adviser to President Bush who had a big hand in crafting the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, who now works out of Austin.

Reality Checks

With a raft of Texans shaping federal education policy, there “tends to be a skewed view of the country,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, and a former education aide to House Democrats.

“They might presume that what they experienced in Texas is what other states have gone through, and that isn’t correct,” said Mr. Jennings, a native of Chicago, who has worked in Washington for nearly four decades.

For the last two decades, Texas has worked to overhaul its education system, said Deborah Graves Ratcliffe, the spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. The focus has been on establishing rigorous curriculum standards, aligning tests to those standards, and holding schools accountable for student achievement, she said.

That effort foreshadowed the broad outlines of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Valerie A. Woodruff, Delaware’s education secretary and the board president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said that while it seems reasonable that some top aides to Ms. Spellings would be from Texas, the overall philosophy at the Education Department is “very Texas-like.” Ms. Woodruff said early on in the Bush administration, many department officials expected all states to be at the same place in their improvement efforts as Texas was in areas such as student assessment and educational technology.

“Well, everyone else wasn’t there yet,” Ms. Woodruff said. “There have been some reality checks that we as chiefs have had to bring from time to time, and that continues.”

On the plus side, Mr. Jennings said, is that the staff members are “very loyal to the president and very familiar with the Texas school reform model, which in effect has been made the national way to reform schools.”

Who better to implement the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Kress said, than people who have watched a similar model play out on a state level.

“I’m not going to make braggadocious statements about Texas, but we have been one of the more active laboratories over the last 15 years, with some success, so we have had a lot of people who have been busy and active and experienced,” said Mr. Kress, a former Dallas school board member who now has an educational consulting business with Ms. Bryan in Austin.

Mr. Miller, the head of Secretary Spellings’ panel studying higher education, agreed.

“Texas has been reasonably successful in education,” he said. “There are a set of people who have been persistently involved in that effort for a long time. You tend to go with people who have experience and have been involved, and people you feel comfortable with.”

Plus, he said, with both urban, suburban, and rural areas and a large population of non-English-speakers in its schools, Texas is a “microcosm of what is going on in the rest of the country.”

But Texas boasting also may alienate some in other parts of the country working to put the No Child Left Behind law in place. When Secretary Spellings speaks publicly, she’s fond of touting her home state’s efforts—perhaps rightly so—but such bragging doesn’t help build the Education Department’s standing in other regions, Ms. Woodruff said.

“It’s absolutely very hard to deal with,” the Delaware official said. “It’s like, ‘C’mon, give us some credit.’ ”

Riley’s Circle

Not everyone in Ms. Spellings’ inner circle is a Texan, of course. Raymond J. Simon, the deputy secretary, or No. 2 official, is from Arkansas. Henry L. Johnson, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, came to Washington by way of North Carolina and Mississippi. Both play prominent roles in the department’s management, said Ms. McLane, the press secretary. Texas connections are decidedly not a prerequisite for employment, she said.

“The secretary surrounds herself with people of great experience, people of great ideas, who are committed to the president’s goal of having every child in America read and do math at grade level by 2014,” Ms. McLane said.

And it’s not unusual for a secretary of education who worked on education issues at the state level to bring close aides to Washington, said Marshall S. Smith, a former undersecretary and acting deputy secretary at the department under Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who served under President Clinton.

During Mr. Riley’s eight-year tenure, three of his top advisers were from South Carolina, where Mr. Riley had been governor, said Mr. Smith, a native of Massachusetts. At any given time, he said, there may have been five or so South Carolinians among Secretary Riley’s senior and midlevel staff, and no one made an issue of it.

“Any secretary who comes in … is likely to have had people who have already been advising them on a mix of substance and politics,” said Mr. Smith, now the director of the education program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif.. “These are very important people. They give the secretary a sense of comfort and continuity.”

The world of federal education policy in Washington is narrow on its own terms, said Mr. Miller, who made his career as a Houston investor and spent years as a member of the Board of Regents for the University of Texas system. “Washington is more provincial than Texas,” he said. “How many people are located at Dupont Circle”—known for its big concentration of higher education groups—“or come from the same sets of elite universities? … There’s more groupthink from those types than anywhere else.”

Grant Questioned

Some questions have been raised about whether Texas connections have influenced a funding decision by the Education Department.

In January, an audit by the agency’s office of inspector general chided the department for its procedures in awarding a four-year, $9.6 million grant to the Austin-based Center for State Scholars to take the Texas Scholars program, which encourages high school students to take more rigorous classes, to the national level. (“Federal Audit Criticizes Management of State Scholars Initiative,” Feb. 1, 2006.)

The grant was supposed to be “unsolicited,” but the audit found that “the application was not genuinely unsolicited because it was completed with the department’s endorsement and involvement.”

State education officials in Texas said Lone Star State alumni in the federal department haven’t shown them preferential treatment.

“They’re holding us to very high, strict standards because, I think, they don’t want to show favoritism,” said Ms. Ratcliffe, the spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “They’ve threatened to fine us repeatedly for a variety of things they think we’ve done wrong. Certainly many other states have not had that possibility of a fine.”

In fact, Texas was one of 10 states notified in July that federal funds were likely to be withheld by the Education Department for failure to comply with some of the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing provisions.

Nevertheless, Ms. Ratcliffe acknowledged that Texas education officials maintain a close relationship with Texans in the federal department, who are often quick to respond to concerns: “They tend to answer our calls when we place them.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Officials’ Roots Run Deep in Heart of Texas


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal What Works Clearinghouse: Inside 20 Years of Education Evaluation
After two decades of the What Works Clearinghouse, research experts look to the future.
4 min read
Blue concept image of research - promo
Federal One of Kamala Harris' First Campaign Speeches Will Be to Teachers
Vice President Kamala Harris will speak to the nation's second-largest teachers' union at its convention in Houston.
1 min read
Vice President Kamala Harris campaigns for President as the presumptive Democratic candidate during an event at West Allis Central High School, Tuesday, July 23, 2024, in West Allis, Wis.
Vice President Kamala Harris campaigns during an event at West Allis Central High School in West Allis, Wis., on Tuesday, July 23, 2024. Harris will speak at the American Federation of Teachers convention on Thursday, July 25.
Kayla Wolf/AP
Federal AFT's Randi Weingarten on Kamala Harris: 'She Has a Record of Fighting for Us'
The union head's call to support Kamala Harris is one sign of Democratic support coalescing around the vice president.
5 min read
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's annual conference in Houston on July 22, 2024.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's biennial conference in Houston on July 22, 2024. She called on union members to support Vice President Kamala Harris the day after President Joe Biden ended his reelection campaign.
via AFT Livestream
Federal Biden Drops Out of Race and Endorses Kamala Harris to Lead the Democratic Ticket
The president's endorsement of Harris makes the vice president the most likely nominee for the Democrats.
3 min read
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington. He announced Sunday that he was dropping out of the 2024 presidential race and endorsing Vice President Kamala Harris as his replacement for the Democratic nomination.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP