Federal

Mississippi Chief Tapped for U.S. K-12 Post

June 07, 2005 4 min read
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Henry L. Johnson, Mississippi's state schools chief, is President Bush's pick to be next assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

President Bush has selected Mississippi state schools chief Henry L. Johnson to become the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, one of the federal government’s highest-profile positions for working with precollegiate schools and state leaders.

The June 1 announcement from the White House came as several other second-term leadership moves at the Education Department have been falling into place.

Bush chooses Johnson as Ed. Dept. leadership team is nearly complete

The Senate late last month confirmed Raymond J. Simon as deputy secretary of education, the department’s No. 2 post. And the president on May 23 nominated Thomas W. Luce III to be the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. The position was created this year as part of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ reorganization of the agency. (“Texas ‘Agitator’ in Line for Ed. Dept. Post,” May 25, 2005.)

Mr. Johnson, a Democrat, said in an interview that he plans to serve through the end of July as the superintendent of education in Mississippi, where in 2002 he became one of the state’s highest-ranking black officials since Reconstruction.

He previously helped shape education policy during seven years as the associate state superintendent in North Carolina, where the 59-year-old grew up, graduated from Livingstone College, and began his career as a teacher and school administrator. (“Accountability the Main Goal For Miss. Superintendent,” June 18, 2003.)

Mr. Johnson said that if confirmed by the Senate, he would work closely with officials from all the states to help them carry out the No Child Left Behind Act while also helping states find enough flexibility within the law to ensure its full implementation.

“While education is a state responsibility, the federal government ought to think about additional ways we can help states build capacity, to help locals build capacity” toward school improvement, Mr. Johnson said.

Bridge Building

The Mississippi chief would replace Mr. Simon, who was confirmed by unanimous consent as deputy secretary on May 26. Mr. Simon came to Washington in 2003 after serving as the state schools chief in Arkansas.

As the assistant secretary overseeing K-12 issues, Mr. Johnson would face state and local dissent over the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which requires standardized testing and yearly improvement in student achievement.

Utah has passed legislation aimed at giving its state accountability system precedence over the federal law, and Connecticut has said it plans to sue the federal government over the costs of implementing the law. (“Union, States Wage Frontal Attack on NCLB,” April 27, 2005.)

Mr. Johnson said he would hope to build bridges with state leaders if his nomination is approved.

“I want to continue to move in the direction that Margaret Spellings and Ray Simon are moving, in providing more flexibility within the law—where flexibility is warranted,” he said. “I don’t profess to come in there with any bright ideas about what will happen, but we need to make sure there’s ongoing conversation about how we can facilitate states’ doing their jobs better and improving educational outcomes for students.”

In Mississippi, Mr. Johnson pushed for greater state spending on education in this year’s legislative session, with limited success. Lawmakers passed a fiscal 2006 budget for education and other state services during a special session that ended late last month. (“New Mississippi Budget Draws Mixed Reviews,” this issue.)

He said that his accomplishments in the Magnolia State included raising high school graduation requirements, boosting the rigor of state tests, and requiring that prospective teachers spend more hours learning how to teach reading.

Moving On

Mr. Johnson also said steps have been taken in Mississippi to improve working relationships between the K-12 education sector and the state’s community colleges and universities. He added that he’s glad to see many Mississippi schools using a technology-based diagnostic testing program that can help educators track student achievement more carefully and precisely.

Mississippi will continue to face challenges in the future, he noted. “I don’t think the [state education] department is sufficiently staffed to help sustain improvement in the local schools,” he said, adding that he also backs bonus pay for individual teachers in schools that improve student achievement.

Kenny Bush, a state board of education member in Mississippi who was the panel’s chairman when Mr. Johnson was hired there three years ago, said the superintendent would be missed. He predicted that Mr. Johnson would do well at the federal department.

“He is one of the most knowledgeable education leaders on No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Bush, who is not related to the president, said in a recent interview. “What he probably underestimates,” he added, “is the power of the role model he is both for minorities and for whites” in Mississippi.

Mr. Johnson, whose job as state schools chief is nonpartisan, publicly opposed Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s more modest proposals for increased school aid, arguing they were not enough. But the Democrat said he has no hesitations about working for the Bush administration.

“I think education is really too important to be bound by partisan politics,” he said. “I don’t see any inconsistency in my taking a job with a Republican administration for its purpose of helping to implement the No Child Left Behind Act and related activities. Most of what’s in No Child Left Behind and certainly the philosophy that undergirds No Child Left Behind are things that I’ve been saying as a local official and a state-level official for years.”

Assistant Editor Erik W. Robelen contributed to this report.

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