Federal

Tough Message, Diplomatic Messenger

By Sean Cavanagh — August 09, 2005 4 min read
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Supporters of vocational education have looked upon the Bush administration’s recent attempts to overhaul their federally financed programs with suspicion, and at times, downright scorn. But that antagonism does not seem to extend to the administration’s chief emissary for those policies, Susan K. Sclafani.

As the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, Ms. Sclafani has generally won praise from backers of career and technical programs, despite her demand that they recast their mission and become more challenging academically.

Many observers say the 60-year-old former Houston school official, who followed her boss, Rod Paige, to Washington after he became secretary of education, has proved adept at balancing the often-opposing interests of the administration and the vocational education community.

"We used to make a false dichotomy between students taking a vocational path and those taking an academic path," says Susan K. Sclafani. "Students need to see both of those pathways."

As Ms. Sclafani sees it, her job is to talk honestly about where vocational education succeeds, and where it does not.

“Those who are in the professional organizations, those who are teachers on the ground, go in every day wanting to do the best for their students,” Ms. Sclafani said in a recent interview. “Part of it is being honest with them about what they’re going to have to do to change their profession. … I’m going to be straightforward with them about what I will support and what I won’t support.”

President Bush and members of his administration have repeatedly questioned the academic strength of vocational programs. Ms. Sclafani has voiced similar criticisms but has suggested that career-oriented programs can have a role in improving high schools—a view that, to some advocates, occasionally seems to put her at odds with official White House policy.

‘A Noble Soldier’

“She’s not the kind of person who just gives the canned speech that is the administration’s line,” said Kimberly A. Green, an influential lobbyist who is the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium. “She’s always been a noble soldier for the administration, but she translates that message in a way that’s meaningful to the audience she’s speaking to.”

Jan Bray, the executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria Va., credits the assistant secretary for taking a cooperative approach to working with the community. “She’s diverged from the party line in that way,” Ms. Bray said, “but I think she’s also an astute politician who knows when to toe the party line and when to speak out.”

The party line for the Bush administration, if carried out, would appear to shift Ms. Sclafani’s duties dramatically. She oversees an office with 126 employees and an annual budget of $1.3 billion, which the White House proposed zeroing out in next year’s budget. The administration would like to shift that money to the president’s $1.5 billion plan to expand the No Child Left Behind Act’s mandates at the high school level. So far, Congress has rejected the cuts to vocational education.

Ms. Sclafani argues that the Bush proposal is aimed at using federal money for vocational education more effectively, not eliminating it. She also downplays the notion of a divide between her thinking and that of others in the administration on the performance of career-oriented programs.

“I don’t think people in the administration believe there are no positive contributions” in vocational education, Ms. Sclafani said. “Perhaps I focus on the [glass] half-full, where others may focus, to make their point on the necessity of change, on the half-empty.”

First-Term Holdover

Mr. Paige, the former secretary, said last week that he had hoped Ms. Sclafani would succeed him as the superintendent of the 210,000-student Houston district. When district officials chose someone else, however, he persuaded his longtime aide to join him in 2001 at the federal department, where she served as a counselor to the secretary before being nominated as assistant secretary in September 2003.

“She has a mind that can grasp a wide range of issues very quickly,” said Mr. Paige, now a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “She came in early and she stayed late, and she cared deeply about children learning.”

Over the past year, Ms. Sclafani has seen Congress wade through its reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, which governs her federal program. Critics of the proposed legislation say it would do little to improve the academic rigor of vocational education. But Ms. Sclafani said she hopes that lawmakers will more closely align the final legislation with the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability measures, during upcoming conference-committee negotiations.

The reauthorization process began during Mr. Bush’s first term. Ms. Sclafani is one of the few holdovers among top officials of the department, now led by Margaret Spellings.

The turnover at the agency has led to considerable guesswork about how long she will stay. For now, Ms. Sclafani, who earns $140,300 annually, has taken an active role in working on department issues outside the immediate realm of vocational education, from efforts to improve student performance in math and science to addressing the role of arts education in schools. Some observers speculate that she eventually might return to a big-city district, take a job in academia, or work on international education issues, a subject in which she has also taken an interest.

Ms. Sclafani declined to take part in such conjecture. “As long as I feel like I’m making a real contribution, I’ll stay,” she said. Working on topics outside of career and technical education makes sense, she added, because “all of these things go very well together.”

“We used to make a false dichotomy between students taking a vocational path and those taking an academic path,” said the assistant secretary. “Students need to see both of those pathways.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as Tough Message, Diplomatic Messenger

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