Raymond J. Simon appears on track for a big promotion at the Department of Education.
President Bush this month nominated the longtime educator and former Arkansas state schools chief to take the No. 2 slot at the department, where he now serves as a popular and high-profile assistant secretary.
“I think he’s going to be a good selection,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, which must approve the nomination before sending it to the full Senate. “I haven’t talked to the chairman about this yet,” Sen. Kennedy said in an interview last week, referring to Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., “but it should be pretty simple, pretty quick.”
Meanwhile, Mississippi state schools Superintendent Henry L. Johnson, who has been a vocal supporter of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, is reportedly being considered to replace Mr. Simon as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
There has long been speculation that Mr. Simon would get the president’s nod for the deputy secretary’s slot. He is well-liked in Washington policy circles and far beyond the Capital Beltway.
President Bush’s April 15 nomination of Mr. Simon was welcomed by some prominent education groups here, including the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The council “could not be more pleased,” said its executive director, G. Thomas Houlihan. “He is a practitioner who’s lived in the shoes of people who have to carry out this [No Child Left Behind] legislation.”
“Our dealings with Mister Simon have worked out really well,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. “He has been there in the chair, trying to make things work on a day-to-day basis, and that’s part of the reason why his dealings with administrators have been so generally positive.”
A ‘Natural Step’
Mr. Simon has spent his entire professional career in education, with stints as a math teacher, school principal, district superintendent, and Arkansas state chief. Since joining the federal Education Department in December 2003, he’s played a key role in carrying out the No Child Left Behind Act. The measure, which President Bush signed in January 2002, is under fire from state legislatures, teachers’ unions, and others for its mandates on school improvement and what critics say is inadequate funding.(“Union, States Wage Frontal Attack on NCLB,” and “Chiefs’ Group, Federal Department on Better Terms,” April 27, 2005.)
Mr. Simon said that, if the Senate confirms his nomination, he expects to remain deeply involved with the law’s implementation.
“Should I be fortunate enough to be confirmed, it’s going to be a very natural step for me in view of the fact that the secretary has reorganized the department, and basically the deputy secretary will have immediate oversight in working with the ‘little kids,’ we call it, K-12,” he said in an interview after testifying April 20 on early-childhood education before a Senate subommittee.
“It would be an opportunity,” he said, “to really make sure that the resources of the department are truly focused on the mission of No Child Left Behind.”
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in March announced plans to revamp the agency’s structure, including the creation of two new offices headed by assistant secretaries. (“Spellings Puts Her Stamp on Department,” March 11, 2005.)
A day before his Senate testimony, Mr. Simon showed a lighter side to his former colleagues at the CCSSO’s annual legislative conference. Starting an hourlong question-and-answer session, he joked about how thoroughly the FBI vets potential nominees for positions such as deputy secretary of education.
He filled out a questionnaire that asked, among other things, whether he had ever used drugs illegally. “Answer ‘yes,’ ” he said, “even if you didn’t inhale.”
That and other jokes drew laughter from CCSSO members, and his message was received warmly. He promised that the department would review state accountability plans—blueprints for how states will meet accountability requirements under the NCLB law—in the “most objective manner as we possibly can.”
If confirmed, Mr. Simon would replace Eugene W. Hickok, who stepped down as deputy secretary early this year.
As for the vacancy Mr. Simon’s promotion would create, the Bush administration may look to fill it with Mr. Johnson, the Mississippi education superintendent. The White House declined to comment on the matter.
Mr. Johnson, Mississippi’s first African-American state schools chief since Reconstruction, could not be reached for comment last week. He told the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger newspaper this month that he was being considered for the K-12 assistant secretary’s post, but that no formal offer had been made.
Kenny Bush, a member of the Mississippi board of education who helped hire Mr. Johnson in 2002, would not comment when asked whether the schools chief would accept the federal post. But he said that Washington’s gain would be Mississippi’s loss.
“He would be great at traveling, giving speeches, at helping the U.S. Department of Education serve the various states,” the state board member said. “I think he would bring tremendous credibility to the U.S. Department of Education. My only concern would be whether he would have the patience to put up with the bureaucracy in Washington.”
Assistant Editor David J. Hoff and Staff Writer Alan Richard contributed to this story.