Federal

Texas ‘Agitator’ in Line for Ed. Dept. Post

By Erik W. Robelen & Michelle R. Davis — May 20, 2005 4 min read
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A generous Texas donor to Republican candidates who has a history of involvement in education and long-standing ties to President Bush is expected to be named to a senior Department of Education position.

Several Washington insiders who asked not to be named said last week that Thomas W. Luce III, who founded the group Just for the Kids, would likely soon be nominated by the president as the department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. That job was created this year as part of a reorganization by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Among the job’s responsibilities will be oversight of the department’s annual budget proposal.

The White House and the Education Department declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on May 18 unanimously backed the promotion of Raymond J. Simon to become the new deputy secretary, the department’s No. 2 position. Mr. Simon, a former educator and state schools chief in Arkansas, has been serving since December 2003 as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. He has been acting deputy secretary since April.

Mississippi state schools Superintendent Henry L. Johnson is widely expected to be named to fill Mr. Simon’s post as the K-12 assistant secretary. (“Simon Nominated to Be Deputy Secretary,” April 27, 2005.)

‘Intelligent, Insightful’

Mr. Luce, 64, has long been involved in education issues in Texas, and more recently across the country. He is a co-author of a book published this year called Do What Works: How Proven Practices Can Improve America’s Public Schools. His work has drawn praise from leaders in education, including top teachers’ union officials in Texas.

Mr. Luce, a lawyer, has also been a good friend to GOP candidates over the years.

In 2004, he gave the maximum personal contribution to President Bush’s re-election campaign, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based watchdog group that monitors campaign contributions. He was also part of the Educators for Bush Steering Committee in last year’s campaign. And he has donated to a variety of GOP candidates for Congress and to the Freedom Project, a Washington-based political action committee that backs House Republican campaigns.

The head of that PAC is Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“It’s not uncommon to see a big donor given a post in an administration,” said Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. The key question, he added, is whether the assignment was given based on political favoritism or on qualifications.

In the eyes of John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, Mr. Luce will be up to the task if he is named to the Education Department post.

“That would show uncommonly good judgment on the part of the president,” Mr. Cole said when told of the likely appointment. “Tom’s one of the most intelligent, insightful, and thoughtful people in Texas, and his commitment to education runs very deep, especially public education.”

Mr. Luce played a lead role in 1984 in helping to craft and marshal support for major changes to Texas’ education system.

Mr. Luce unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for Texas governor in 1990. He broke ranks with Republicans by working for the 1992 presidential campaign of the businessman Ross Perot, who had spearheaded the Texas education changes.

He also has long-established relationships with key people in the Bush administration, including the president himself. “I’ve known Tom for a long time,” President Bush said during a Florida school visit in September 2003. “Tom has been an agitator for change in our state of Texas ever since I’ve known him.”

But one former Bush administration Education Department official, who asked not to be named, suggested that the Texas ties have given Mr. Luce an unfair advantage in securing federal aid for work he’s recently been involved in.

In 1995, Mr. Luce founded the Austin-based nonprofit group Just for the Kids with the aim of using state accountability data to examine and improve student performance. In 2001, following up and essentially subsuming that project, he helped found and was board chairman of the National Center for Educational Accountability, which has received federal funds for its work promoting the use of student and school data to improve schools.

Federal Grant Money

The NCEA, based in Austin, is a collaborative effort with the University of Texas at Austin and the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Since its inception, the NCEA has received some $2.2 million in federal grant money for national projects as a subcontractor to direct grantees, according to Michael E. Hudson, the president of the NCEA.

“It was clear to many people in the department that if [the NCEA] was based in Madison, Wis., they would never have gotten a dime,” the former agency official said.

But in a phone interview last week, Mr. Luce sharply rejected the charge.

“It is ridiculous [to suggest] that we got favoritism,” he said, arguing that the group has a reputation for quality work. He also noted that the NCEA’s board of directors is bipartisan and includes former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. and former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, both prominent Democrats. And he stressed the nonpartisanship of the University of Texas and the ECS.

Mr. Luce declined to comment on whether he would be asked to join the Education Department. But he said he stepped down this month as the chairman of the NCEA.

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