Finance Expert Tapped For Ed. Dept.'s No. 3 Post

By Sean Cavanagh — October 29, 2003 5 min read
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President Bush on Oct. 28 announced his intention to fill the third-highest- ranking position in the U.S. Department of Education with a top financial officer from another federal agency, a move that supporters say will help preserve fiscal order at the department.

Edward R. “Ted” McPherson, the chief financial officer at the Department of Agriculture, will be nominated to the job of undersecretary of education, the White House and the Education Department said.

That role calls for him to serve as a chief adviser to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, whose senior staff has seen several departures over the past few months.

A native of Texas, Mr. McPherson brings years of financial experience in government and private industry, but little apparent expertise on school issues, according to biographical information provided by the Education and Agriculture departments.

Traditionally, the undersecretary serves as a principal policy adviser to the secretary on issues ranging from the budget and strategic planning to implementation of education policy. In this case, several observers said, political and policy duties, including implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, were likely to remain the bailiwick of Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, who has also been serving as undersecretary. There was no word from the White House or the Education Department about whether Mr. Hickok would be nominated to the No. 2 job.

In a statement, Mr. Paige suggested that Mr. McPherson—whose nomination would require confirmation by the Senate—was chosen partly for his fiscal know-how.

“I look forward to him joining the department,” Mr. Paige said, “and have no doubt he will be a valuable asset in our continued efforts to be responsible stewards of the federal taxpayer’s [dollars] and ensure that all students have access to a quality education.”

If confirmed, Mr. McPherson would fill the position currently held by Mr. Hickok, who since July 23 has been holding two job titles: undersecretary, and acting deputy secretary of education, the department’s No. 2 post.

Despite the announcement regarding the intention to nominate Mr. McPherson, it was unclear whether the president intends to nominate Mr. Hickok—one of the department’s most visible and dogged advocates for the implementation of the No Child Left Behind law—to the deputy secretary’s position. Such an appointment also would require Senate confirmation.

A spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, declined to comment, saying it was too early to offer a statement on Mr. McPherson until his nomination was made official. Both the Agriculture and Education departments said Mr. McPherson was not available for an interview.

The Department of Education oversees an annual discretionary budget of roughly $53 billion. It also administers billions of dollars in college loans, grants, and other forms of federal financial aid to more than 8 million students across the country.

Mr. McPherson was appointed the chief financial officer at the Department of Agriculture in October 2001. He oversees spending at an agency that has a $72-billion fiscal 2003 budget. Before joining the Agriculture Department, Mr. McPherson was the president of InterSolve Group, a management-consulting firm that he founded.

A graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., he has a master’s degree in administration from George Washington University in Washington, and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy and the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to biographical information from the Agriculture department.

The announcement of Mr. McPherson’s selection comes about three months after Deputy Secretary of Education William D. Hansen announced his resignation, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Observers inside and outside the department credited Mr. Hansen with revamping financial oversight of the 4,800-employee Education Department. Before Mr. Hansen’s departure, the department was given its first “clean” report on its financial records in six years, in an independent audit.

Filling a Gap

Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, predicted that Mr. McPherson would likely absorb many of the budget-watchdog duties previously handled by Mr. Hansen. “It’s a big agency,” Mr. Hunter said. “It requires good internal-management skills.”

He was not surprised that the Bush administration would tap someone from outside education for the key post. Such moves have become fairly common in Washington, and within the department, said Mr. Hunter, who had never heard of Mr. McPherson.

Still, the lobbyist believes Mr. McPherson would face some limitations because of that inexperience.

“If they’re asking him to go out and make education speeches, he might be able to do that, but he wouldn’t have a whole lot of credibility,” said Mr. Hunter, whose association is located in Arlington, Va.

There has typically been a division of duties between the second- and third-ranking Education Department officials, said Marshall S. Smith, who served as undersecretary and acting deputy secretary during the Clinton administration. If Mr. Hickok is spearheading implementation of the Bush administration’s education policies—particularly the No Child Left Behind Act—it makes sense for the other senior administrator to oversee day-to-day operations, Mr. Smith said.

“They’re filling what they see as a gap,” he said. He believes it is likely the Bush administration would nominate Mr. Hickok and Mr. McPherson for the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the department at the same time.

The selection of an administrator from outside the world of education did not surprise Mr. Smith. The move allows the administration to select someone who has already won the trust of the White House, and who did not have to uproot a family from another part of the country, with only one year left in this presidential term.

“People have the skills to move from substantive area to substantive area,” Mr. Smith said of the would-be nominee. “He can still look at the books and oversee the administrative and managerial duties.”

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