Rural education advocates lost a key voice at the U.S. Department of Education this fall, and now the duties of John White, the former deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, have been parceled out to two communications staff members in regional offices.
White was based in Washington, and he was well-known in national rural ed. circles. He left the department in November for a job as chief of staff for the Maryland Department of Education. He was the federal department’s first deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach when the position was created in 2009 amid criticism that it was out of touch with rural schools.
Officials recently tapped two staff members—Dennis Bega, a director of regional operations for communications and outreach, based in Georgia; and Patrick Kerr, a regional director of communications and outreach, based in Missouri—to carry on his work. Bega said he spends “a lot” of his time in D.C.
Some rural ed supporters have been surprised by the change in the department’s approach to the position. Rob Mahaffey, the communications director for the Rural School and Community Trust and president of Organizations Concerned about Rural Education, said he looks forward to collaborating with Bega and Kerr, but he thought White’s role and responsibilities would be assumed by another Washington-based staff member.
“It is not what our expectation was, and we still think it’s a less than optimum solution to having a strong rural policy voice,” he said.
Mahaffey’s group has been advocating for Congress to establish an Office of Rural Education Policy, which it sees as the best way for the federal government to have a focus on rural schools, children, and communities. That office would work across federal agencies to improve rural schools. An amendment that would’ve created the office failed last year in a tie vote.
The staffing shift at the department doesn’t appear to be permanent. Massie Ritsch, the acting assistant secretary of the department’s office of communications and outreach, said the department is were sorry to lose White and to do so on fairly short notice. White made the position an important part of the department’s outreach, and federal officials want to continue to build on the relationships that he established, Ritsch said.
Officials still are evaluating the best configuration for the department to serve, interact, and learn from the rural education community, he said. White did “fantastic” work that Bega and Kerr will be continuing, but “we may be able to find some other folks to add to that effort,” he said. The hiring process takes time.
“We’re still in the needs-assessment period,” he said. “We want to make sure we cover John’s portfolio.”
Bega said he and Kerr are spending three-fourths of their time or more on amplifying the message of the U.S. Department of Education as it relates to rural schools and communities, as well as working on how they can make sure rural interests are reflected. Both still have other responsibilities, and both also were doing rural education work before the official change.
“They are stars on our team, and they really are in touch with the right folks,” Ritsch said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post had an incorrect former title for John White. White was the former deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach for the U.S. Department of Education.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.