Education Cabinet a Mixed Bag In Experience, Politics

By Joetta L. Sack — September 19, 2001 6 min read
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The education team the Bush administration has assembled over a laborious first eight months in office brings a diversity of experience to the Department of Education.

It’s hard to make generalizations about the people who are now unpacking their boxes and getting to work. Some have experience in academe or state agencies, others have Texas roots or ties to President Bush’s campaign, and some are seen as young conservatives with potential.

It’s a fairly varied group demographically. Including Secretary of Education Rod Paige, four African-Americans are among the dozen people tapped so far for the department’s top tiers. One appointee is Hispanic, and four are women.

Choices for three major positions have not yet been announced.

Secretary Paige describes his group of lieutenants as “a superstar lineup. ... These are people who are at the top of their professions.”

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, is a bit less enthusiastic. Most of the team, he said, came in through political routes, he said, and it’s unclear how they will work with groups that may oppose some of their ideals.

“The quality of the team is not the result of Paige’s choices, but it is a team committed to that agenda,” he said.

But the staff’s experience, Mr. Paige said, will help the agency roll out with minimal bumps the likely changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and launch other initiatives. Congress is expected this fall to overhaul the main federal law in K-12 education, with an emphasis on test-based accountability that is the subject of sharp debate. At the same time, Mr. Paige is trying to instill what he sees as greater accountability into his agency’s employees and spending.

The top three jobs, including that of the secretary himself, are occupied by leaders with experience at three different levels: local, federal, and state. The strategy, Mr. Paige said, was to create a triumvirate that would complement one another’s strengths.

As a former superintendent of the Houston public schools, education dean, and college football coach, Mr. Paige brings real-world experience at the district and campus levels to his Cabinet position. What he didn’t bring to the Bush administration was any time spent as an operative inside the Capital Beltway. Accordingly, his deputy secretary, William D. Hansen, has extensive seasoning as a federal bureaucrat. He worked inside the agency’s Washington headquarters for 11 years before becoming a lobbyist for higher education groups in 1993.

Neither Mr. Paige nor Mr. Hansen, though, has the sort of rock-solid “movement conservative” credentials that some believe are needed to mollify the president’s political base.

The undersecretary, Eugene W. Hickok, does. He has been an outspoken advocate for causes such as school choice and local control, and he gained significant state-level experience as Pennsylvania’s secretary of education.

“It’s a nice package,” Mr. Hickok said of the department’s executive lineup. “The chemistry of this leadership team is only now beginning to form—it’s exciting.”

Policy and Political Hands

Selections for other key jobs seem to have been pulled from the same bag of different, but complementary, experiences.

Some appointees spent time on the campaign trail, while others came in through other connections after President Bush arrived in Washington. Some followed the president and the secretary from Texas; for instance, chief of staff Terry R. Abbott was Mr. Paige’s press secretary for four years when Mr. Paige was the superintendent in Houston.

Susan Neuman, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, was an education professor and reading expert. Improving reading has been a Bush policy staple since his early days as Texas governor.

Others have strong roots in Washington, such as Becky Campoverde, the assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs. Laurie Rich, the assistant secretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs, has both Beltway and big-belt-buckle credentials. She had served as the executive director of the Texas Office of State-Federal Relations since 1995 and was also a longtime aide on Capitol Hill.

And some, Secretary Paige said, were chosen for their firsthand experience in the fields they oversee within the department. Those include Assistant Secretaries Carol D’Amico, for vocational and adult education; Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, for research; and Robert Pasternack, for special education and rehabilitative services. And Jack Martin, who has been nominated to become the chief financial officer, has experience working with the finances of domestic federal agencies.

It’s the two people chosen to oversee the agency’s legal and civil rights affairs that appear to have the most in common, and have garnered the most criticism.

Both Brian W. Jones, the nominee for general counsel, and Gerald A. Reynolds, who has been chosen to head the office for civil rights, are thirty-something African-Americans who have taken stands against racial preferences and have been involved in conservative groups such as the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy and the Center for New Black Leadership. Their records have provoked liberal-leaning civil rights and advocacy groups to oppose their nominations. (“Counsel Pick Seeks to Dispel Democrats’ Doubts,” Sept. 12, 2001, and “OCR Choice Renews Debate on Credentials Needed for Job,” Sept. 12, 2001.)

The White House, as of late last week, had not yet announced President Bush’s selections for three other major positions: the assistant secretaries for postsecondary education and management and a commissioner of education statistics.

Awaiting More Appointees

Secretary Paige said in an interview Sept. 6 that several candidates were in the running for each job, and that nominees could be announced by the end of this month.

Overall, the Education Department’s leadership is similar in its racial and ethnic diversity to Secretary Richard W. Riley’s first team, nominated by President Clinton in 1993.

Mr. Clinton, though, picked two former governors for the top two jobs, both Mr. Riley and Deputy Secretary Madeleine M. Kunin, backed by a host of academics, a teachers’ union official, and two former big-city superintendents. So far, none of Mr. Paige’s team comes from elective office.

The Paige group’s experience in the field could be a great asset in the work ahead with the ESEA, suggested Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

“Unless you have the viewpoint of people on the ground in implementing laws, you can’t get a sense of what’s possible,” she said.

But that strength could also become a liability in the important arena of forging political ties on Capitol Hill, some say.

“The people I know are exceptionally talented in the technical sense, with very sound backgrounds in terms of their experience,” said Christopher T. Cross, the director of the Council for Basic Education and a former assistant secretary in the first Bush administration. “The area they’re going to have a steep learning curve in is working in Washington and understanding politics. I don’t think they have a model for working with education groups.”

One indication of an agency’s success is its working relationship with Washington movers and shakers. Whether or not they agree on policy, it’s typical for top agency officials to meet with a broad range of interest groups.

It’s still too early to tell what the Paige team’s working relationship with Washington-based education groups will be, but there’s much speculation. Republican administrations have typically been skeptical of the major education groups, believing they are more aligned with Democratic viewpoints. The Clinton administration held weekly meetings with representatives of education groups.

So far, no such meetings have been held. Some lobbyists, who asked not to be identified, said the current administration has been difficult to work with and unresponsive to their requests for meetings.

Other, more conservative groups, in contrast, say they have met with the new staff and expect to be able to work collaboratively.

“I’m impressed with some of the things coming out of there, and I think we’ll have a good working relationship,” Ms. Kafer of the Heritage Foundation said.

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