Federal Opinion

‘CliffsNotes’ for the New Secretary of Education

By Leslie T. Thornton — January 31, 2001 8 min read
You, Mr. Paige, will be taking the helm at a time in history when the whole country seems to be focused on education. Expect scrutiny.

I began working with Dick Riley during the Clinton-Gore presidential transition of 1992 and stayed with him through March of this past year—7½ of President Clinton’s and Secretary Riley’s eight years in office. I was the first African-American chief of staff to a U.S. secretary of education in the history of that federal department. You, Mr. Paige, will be the first African-American ever to head the Department of Education. You will be taking the helm at a time in history when the whole country seems to be focused on the improvement of education, and when the new president has pledged that education will be his first priority. Clearly, you must be prepared for the scrutiny.

But you also will be joining the department just months after its settlement of a 10-year-old racial-discrimination suit brought by senior African-American employees. You will be looked to with high hopes and deeply held convictions on both sides of that issue, and you will be responsible for the settlement’s implementation. You will be promoting assessment initiatives of your new boss that are even more ambitious than the national testing program President Clinton and Secretary Riley saw defeated, in large part, by the unaddressed, legitimate concerns of the Congressional Black Caucus (which, by the way, walked out on the Senate’s certification of your new boss as president). You come in with a legacy of GOP efforts to abolish the Department of Education altogether, and you follow in the footsteps of at least one GOP secretary of education who refused to ride on department elevators with the department’s rank-and-file employees.

If all of that weren’t enough, you succeed someone who is arguably one of the most beloved secretaries in the department’s history and, unarguably, the most loyal and long-serving.

I thought there might be a few things you’d want to know.

It is no secret that during the two previous Republican administrations, the Education Department was on the hit list. Every pundit has talked about it; the Dole presidential campaign was defeated by it, in part; and the Bush 2000 campaign was strategically smart enough not even to attempt such a stance. But don’t underestimate its legacy or its potential effect on your ability to succeed at the department. It took Secretary Riley and our senior staff almost an entire year to undo the skepticism and wariness of senior career officials in the department. Despite our sweeping, and even physical, efforts—removing the armed guard and permanently propping open the glass doors to the secretary’s suite that kept career staff out; inviting the entire department to meet and greet the secretary in his office; walking him literally through every floor of every office of every building to say hello—it was still months before we’d earned enough trust to be told why career officials would not step into the elevator with the secretary.

Your experience as a big urban school district’s superintendent, with documented accomplishments, has earned you much—including the benefit of the doubt. But already, senior career officials at the department, whose job it is to support you and your policies, have been checking you out. Make no mistake about their depth and breadth and reach. Don’t undervalue their discernment. And don’t underestimate the other President Bush’s legacy.

It is no secret that the Ed. Dept. was on the hit list in the two previous Republican administrations.

Understand the history, the politics, and the substance of the issue of testing. President Clinton’s national-test initiative failed not in small part because of an unwillingness of some White House policy aides to appreciate and acknowledge the expressed concerns of the black and Hispanic caucuses. At one White House policy-staff meeting, the Black Caucus was dismissed as “just 60 votes.” Despite our very specific warnings that they were not “just 60 votes” and why, those 60 votes indeed turned into real political leverage. Soon newspapers all over the country were reporting that the president’s “own base” didn’t support the proposed tests—a political death knell for the initiative. To this day, I consider my inability to persuade White House decisionmakers of the shortsightedness of their view a personal failure as chief of staff.

Talk to Mr. Riley about reading and what you hope to do with your reading-by-3rd-grade initiative. He pressured President Clinton from the beginning of the first term for a real, funded reading initiative that would do exactly what’s now being suggested. In fact, Secretary Riley was so dogged about the reading initiative in talks with the president that it became an uneasy joke between them. Mr. Riley was right then, and he’s right about it still.

You have said that Secretary Riley is your role model. Before you undo his work, get to know all of the programs from the Riley era. There are popular ones that have states clamoring for more money from year to year: Gear Up, which encourages disadvantaged youths to aim for college and tells them early that Pell Grants are available to them; the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which are the epitome of local control; the technology initiatives; and even America Reads. Build on the America Reads program for your own reading initiative, rather than getting rid of it. These programs, and many others, seem to be working. States like them, and they are consistent with your own education philosophy and programs.

Put together a serious bipartisan congressional and legislative staff office. You will need good, bipartisan relations more than you know.

Get to know senior career officials in the department, like those in the office of the executive secretariat. All secretarial paper—in and out, Republican or Democratic—goes through that shop. Also spend some time with senior officials and experts in the policy and budget shops. They promote your policies, work out all your budget issues and priorities, and are brilliant. Get to know the people in the office of the general counsel; they are extraordinary attorneys whose job it is, in part, to protect you. You should know well your executive management staff. They take care of the day-to-day needs and operation of the secretary’s office. And the enforcement-division directors in the department’s more than 700-member office for civil rights. Civil rights enforcement will be a bigger issue for you than you might think—trust me. Get to know the chief operating officer of the office for student financial aid. Any Pell Grants initiative will depend on it; that’s where most of the money in the department is, and it’s where some of the department’s toughest challenges (and investigations) are. Get to know the inspector general.

Be prepared for a meeting request from African-American employees at the department who will wish to discuss the terms and implementation of the recent racial-discrimination- suit settlement, particularly issues of promotion. At my going-away party, African-American employees sought out my family members to express fear of their fate upon my departure. (The suit had not then been settled.) It was heartbreaking. And, according to the settlement, based on something real.

Leave the glass doors open.

Take a walk around. The entire department— all five physical buildings, all 10 regions. It will take forever, some people will be skeptical, and it will invite lots of communication to your office. Still, once you’ve done it, plan to do it again next year.

Put together a serious, substantive, bipartisan congressional and legislative staff office. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, this new power-sharing arrangement, a closely divided House, and education’s priority placement on the Bush legislative agenda, you will need good, bipartisan relations on Capitol Hill more than you know.

Learn the ethics rules like the back of your hand. Or have a chief of staff who does. Washington is an easy place to underestimate.p>

Learn the ethics rules like the back of your hand. Washington is an easy place to underestimate.

Hire a deputy secretary who has a bottom-up, not top-down management style, and great loyalty to you. The deputy’s job is to run the day-to-day management operations of the department. If you make a good choice, he or she will get more done, and you will sleep less fitfully at night.

Select assistant secretaries for their substance and expertise in the respective program-office areas, not their political connections and certainly not their political ideologies. The senior career employees will look closely at them and judge what is to come from you, from your selections. As for the political dues-paying you’ll have to do, do it at the level of deputy assistant secretary and below. You will get more respect from your respective assistant secretaries’ offices, they’ll get more done, and, again, you will sleep less fitfully at night.

Similarly, make good appointments to boards and commissions. You and your staff will be overwhelmed by the level of interest in the 20 or more of these, and members’ ability or inability to work together will take more of your staff’s time than you know. The same goes for your regional directors—there are 10 of them. If you make bad choices, angry congressional representatives will call you directly and often to complain about what awful things your folks in the various regions are doing to their constituents.

Do something gracious and wonderful for Secretary Riley. He’ll absolutely hate that I’ve said this, and he’ll tell me so. But he deserves it, and unlike many of his Cabinet peers, he won’t ever publicly criticize his successor (you). That’s just his way.

Keep the department’s mission statement: "... to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the Nation.” People like it, it is entirely consistent with what you’ve fought for for Houston’s schoolchildren, and it’s already on the letterhead.

Ride the elevator. With everyone.

Leslie T. Thornton was formerly the chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. She is now a partner at Patton Boggs LLP, a Washington law firm, chairing its education practice group.

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘CliffsNotes’ for the New Secretary of Education


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