Federal

Hickok Brings a Taste for Local Control to the No. 3 Washington Job

By Joetta L. Sack — September 19, 2001 3 min read
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Eugene W. Hickok has a reputation as a contrarian, an education maverick unafraid of taking on the established school groups and wary of an encroaching Washington role.

Now, as the undersecretary of education, Mr. Hickok, great-nephew of Old West icon Wild Bill Hickok, is a part of the Washington establishment.

Occupying the No. 3 slot in the Department of Education hierarchy, Mr. Hickok will work closely with the White House on education-related initiatives and advise Secretary Rod Paige on policy.

Mr. Hickok, who was the secretary of education in Pennsylvania prior to his Washington appointment and maintains a residence in Carlisle, Pa., was an adviser for the 2000 Bush campaign. He didn’t apply for the undersecretary’s job—in fact, he had a few reservations about taking it.

He said he didn’t want to leave Pennsylvania and his service under Gov. Tom Ridge, also a Republican. While his name had circulated during the early weeks of the new Bush administration as the president’s choice for undersecretary, it was mid-March before the White House made an announcement.

Despite his reservations, Mr. Hickok says he’s happy with the job. He’s planning to work on ways to shift more control to states and districts, which was one of his top priorities as a state leader.

“I’m going to have one foot in Pennsylvania and one in D.C., and, hopefully, I’ll get the best of both worlds,” he said.

In the Keystone State, Mr. Hickok worked closely with Gov. Ridge to put in place an array of accountability measures: more rigorous tests for teacher licensure, more specific academic-content standards for student learning, and, with the state legislature’s approval, the state takeover of low-performing districts. He frequently and loudly butted heads with the state’s main teachers’ union over school choice proposals, including vouchers and charter schools.

One of Mr. Hickok’s complaints about what he refers to as the “education establishment” has been what he considers the excessive use of acronyms and jargon. In 1996, he went so far as to fine employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Education $1 each time they spoke in education jargon, rather than plain English.

But what brought Mr. Hickok’s name to those outside the Pennsylvania state lines most prominently was his involvement in an upstart group, the Education Leaders Council, made up of state education leaders of a mostly conservative bent.

He helped establish the group in 1995 as an alternative to the Council of Chief State School Officers and other long-standing education groups, which he and other ELC members viewed as having a characteristically liberal focus on spending increases and federal initiatives. The ELC has promoted local control, greater accountability, and other education measures, such as giving Title I aid to parents to spend on educational services of their own choice.

Mr. Hickok favored some of the ideas put forth by congressional Republicans after they took power in the 1994 elections, particularly those that favored local decision-making. Most education groups were opposed to the GOP plans.

“The problem with some organizations is, when they lobby, they lobby against those things,” he told The Washington Times in 1995 when he bowed out of the CCSSO.

After advising the Bush campaign on education, he helped oversee the transition in the Education Department.

Now, Mr. Hickok says he been converted to the Bushian spirit of working, or at least talking about working, with those on the other side of ideological bright lines. Mr. Hickok says he plans to work more closely with the Washington education groups he once criticized, even if it will result in “some major differences of opinion.”

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