Education Funding

Federal K-12 Policy Evolves as Staff Turns Over

By Alyson Klein — November 04, 2014 8 min read
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As the Obama administration effectively enters its twilight years in the wake of the midterm elections this week, some prominent U.S. Department of Education officials who were originally in charge of its splashy initiatives—including the stimulus-born Race to the Top program, the No Child Left Behind Act waivers, and the multibillion-dollar School Improvement Grant expansion—have left the building.

Joanne Weiss, an architect of Race to the Top and a former top aide to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, left last year. So did Carmel Martin, a former assistant education secretary who helped develop and champion a range of programs, including the waivers and the SIG program. And James H. Shelton, the deputy secretary who started the Investing in Innovation initiative, which scales up promising practices at the district level, is on his way out the door.

Pulling the Levers

Here are some of the key players at the U.S. Department of Education who will help set and administer policy as the Obama administration enters its final years in office.

Deborah S. Delisle

Deborah S. Delisle

Title: Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education

Tenure: Confirmed April 2012

Duties: Oversees Title I, state grants for teacher quality, No Child Left Behind Act waivers, Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other high-profile K-12 programs.

Background: Served as Ohio’s state superintendent from 2008 to 2011.


Catherine Lhamon

Title: Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights

Tenure: Confirmed August 2013

Duties: Oversees investigations and develops guidelines to help protect disparate groups of students from discriminatory practices.

Background: Served as director of impact litigation at Public Counsel, a pro-bono law firm in Los Angeles, and spent a decade at the American Civil Liberties Union.


Ted Mitchell

Title: Under Secretary

Tenure: Confirmed May 2014

Duties: Coordinates policies and programs in areas including postsecondary education, career-technical education, adult education, and federal student aid.

Background: Former chief executive officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit venture capital fund. Served as the president of the California State Board of Education.


Emma Vadehra

Title: Chief of Staff

Tenure: Started July 2013

Duties: Serves as a top aide to U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

Background: Worked as a chief of staff for Uncommon Schools, a charter management company. Served in the U.S. Department of Education as deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. Worked as an education aide to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.


Robert Gordon

Title: Nominee, Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development

Tenure: Nominated May 2014

Duties: To oversee policy development and budget, coordinate with state education agencies.

Background: Served in various roles at the Office of Management and Budget, from 2009 to 2013.

SOURCES: Education Week, U.S. Department of Education

Such churn is typical when a presidential administration is nearly three-quarters over. But losing big names that helped birth major programs—and bringing in new people to replace them—can have an impact on both policy direction and implementation as the department works to ensure its ideas remain rooted at the state and local levels.

“It feels like there is a greater weight and more demands on this team than your typical end of the administration,” said Andy Smarick, who served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Education Department toward the end of President George W. Bush’s tenure. “They need to make sure they land this plane.”

In particular, said Mr. Smarick, who is now a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting firm, Secretary Duncan and his department still must oversee more than 40 state-level waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. The waivers called for serious policy shifts that have faced political turmoil and implementation woes recently, including new college- and career-ready standards and assessments and teacher evaluations tied in part to student test scores.

State Focus

In the first years of the Obama administration, the department’s top ranks were heavy on players with strong ties to education philanthropies or Capitol Hill.

Now, the agency has a growing contingent of leaders who have recently worked at state education agencies and in districts. Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education is a former Ohio state schools chief, for example, and Amy McIntosh, the principal deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, came to the department after working on teacher evaluation for the New York state education department.

“This work has seasons to it,” said Massie Ritsch, the acting assistant secretary of communications and outreach at the federal Education Department. “Some people are planters, and some people are harvesters, and right now, we’re in a harvesting place.

“Implementation is key,” he said, “and we’ve been lucky to attract people who know what it’s like to run state education offices, school districts, and schools.”

Terry Holliday, the state chief in Kentucky, put it somewhat differently.

“When the secretary came in, he brought some brilliant people in with him,” Mr. Holliday said. “To some degree, they had the answers, but the answers did not play out in reality.”

To its credit, Mr. Holliday said, the department has been making adjustments to its policies. For instance, Mr. Duncan recently allowed states to delay incorporating student test scores into teacher evaluations to give educators time to adjust to new expectations.

Foundation Alumni

Early in Secretary Duncan’s tenure, the Education Department was noted—and sometimes criticized—for its band of alumni from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into K-12 initiatives that mirror many of the department’s policy priorities, including championing the Common Core State Standards and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Mr. Shelton, the deputy secretary at the department, who plans to leave his post by the end of the year, came from the education division of the Seattle-based philanthropy. One of Mr. Duncan’s early chiefs of staff, Margot Rogers, also worked there.

Another former chief of staff, Ms. Weiss, was a top official at the NewSchools Venture Fund, a recipient of several Gates grants totaling around $80 million. (Education Week receives support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for students.)

And there were staff members with deep experience in Washington. Ms. Martin, Mr. Duncan’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, who played a role in creating the NCLB waivers and an expanded improvement-grant program, was a longtime aide to Democrats on the Senate education committee. Ms. Martin left the department in 2013 for the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

Other hires had worked with Mr. Duncan when he served as the district schools chief in Chicago. They included Peter Cunningham, who was Mr. Duncan’s communications chief at the department, and Ann Whalen, the former head of the department’s Implementation and Support Unit, which oversaw Race to the Top. Both have since left the administration.

“Arne brought in a lot of Chicago people and a lot of people connected with the ‘reformer’ movement,” said Marshall S. Smith, who served in top posts in the Education Department during the Clinton administration and was a consultant to the department during the early years of the Obama administration. “And Gates people. Margot Rogers did a lot of the hiring.”

To be sure, there are still plenty of staff members with ties to the Gates Foundation, or with inside-the-Beltway credentials, serving in major roles at the department.

Ted Mitchell, the under secretary, the No. 3 official at the agency, used to head the NewSchools Venture Fund, for example. Emma Vadehra, who now serves as Secretary Duncan’s chief of staff, worked for Democrats on Capitol Hill earlier in her career and had a previous stint at the Education Department.

And Robert Gordon, who has been nominated to serve as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy, and is now working as a special adviser at the department, wore a number of different hats at the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2013, including acting deputy director. In that office, Mr. Gordon had his fingerprints on the education portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus package. The stimulus law had a major impact on the shape of the Obama administration’s K-12 policy.

Shifting Roles

But, at this point in an administration’s arc, much of the work of implementation generally comes under the purview of career employees, many of whom have spent decades at the department, Mr. Smith said.

To that end, Mr. Duncan and his team have moved a number of programs—including SIG, state grants for teacher quality, and the state-level K-12 versions of the Race to the Top program—to a brand-new “office of state support.” It will be headed by Monique Chism, a senior career employee, who came to the department after working on accountability and other issues for Illinois.

Waivers from the NCLB law are under the new office’s purview, too.

The waivers have gone through more twists and turns than any other Obama K-12 policy. Many of the recent changes are aimed at making the policy more workable for most states, as opposed to setting a high bar for implementation and expecting states to meet it.

State chiefs have taken notice of the shift, and some see personnel issues at play.

“Secretary Duncan has always been very easy to work with,” said John Barge, the state superintendent in Georgia. “Sometimes, the staff was not always on the same page. In the beginning, [the department] was much more focused on compliance, not as much on flexibility to states.

“I’m seeing some improvements,” said Mr. Barge, who gave high marks, in particular, to Ms. Delisle.

Kentucky’s Mr. Holliday echoed that sentiment. “The problem with the waivers is they got too much into micromanagement,” he said, “and Deb is trying to get them out of it.”

But Sandy Kress, who served in the George W. Bush administration during the development of the NCLB law, said the department likely would have had to allow states to make adjustments to waivers, no matter who was overseeing them.

“Is it the change in people? I don’t think so much,” he said. “This was a very attractive, very alluring—but ultimately not well conceived—idea to administer waivers the way they choose to do.”

Too Insular?

Fresh viewpoints may bring a new perspective to policymaking, but it’s unlikely to have much real impact at this point in the administration, said Jack Jennings, who spent some three decades as an education aide to Democrats on Capitol Hill.

It’s too late, in his view, to right the ship on policies that continue to face setbacks and pushback, such as the SIG program, which has posted mixed results when it comes to student outcomes, or the department’s approach to teacher evaluations.

“In the beginning, their advisers were from a narrow band of people in education, and they generally had the same point of view,” Mr. Jennings said. “They had a number of programs that were not well thought out and presented a narrow view of public education. Duncan is trying a little more now, but it’s way late in the game.”

But Ms. Martin, who is now the executive-president for policy at CAP, said Secretary Duncan has never limited himself to a small set of advisers.

“Anybody who really knows Arne Duncan knows it could not be further from the truth,” she said. “He is so open. He really tries hard to listen to all perspectives.”

To Ms. Martin, the changes in personnel don’t amount to much: “The two guys who really matter are still there—the president and the secretary.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as K-12 Policy Evolving Amid Staff Turnover


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