White House’s Education Policy Role Ebbs and Flows

By Michelle R. Davis — June 13, 2006 6 min read
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When the No Child Left Behind Act was being shaped early in President Bush’s first term, the word in political circles was that the White House and not the U.S. Department of Education was crafting the plan.

Christopher T. Cross, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, didn’t realize just how into the nitty-gritty the new Bush White House had gotten until he chaired the negotiated rule-making process in 2002. That process, which collected input on how to craft regulations for the federal education law, is typically the purview of Education Department staff members. Then Mr. Cross spotted an aide to then-White House domestic-policy adviser Margaret Spellings in the room.

“I was surprised that there was someone from Margaret’s staff present for the rule-making. That’s not usually the level you find White House staff getting involved,” said Mr. Cross, the author of a 2003 book, Political Education, on the evolving federal role in education. “The whole [No Child Left Behind] package was driven out of the White House.”

In recent history, the ebb and flow of White House involvement in education policy has often depended on personalities more than on the pull of political tides. Those who have watched it from both inside and outside the federal government say the White House’s influence on education policy often depends on who is in charge of domestic policy there and his or her background and policy interests. A lot also depends on the relationship and level of trust between the president and the secretary of education.

“It’s not so much how the White House is involved [in education policy], but the nature of the involvement,” said Michael Cohen, who worked in both the White House and the Education Department under President Clinton and is now the president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based group founded by governors and business leaders to promote the academic rigor of high school.

When Mr. Cohen served in the 1990s, he and other White House staff members met routinely to discuss education proposals for Mr. Clinton’s second term.

“Someone would always say, ‘The president is not going to go for it unless the secretary is going to go for it,’ ” he said, in a reference to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. “I don’t believe that sentence was uttered during the first several years of the [current] Bush administration.”

‘He Trusts Me’

These days, most education policy decisions are made at the Education Department. That’s a switch from the intensity of the White House’s involvement during President Bush’s first term.

“We were extraordinarily active,” said Sandy Kress, an adviser to Mr. Bush on education in 2001. “I think we had to be as active as the White House has ever been” on education policy.

Mr. Kress, who along with Ms. Spellings is often credited as one of the behind-the-scenes architects of the sweeping No Child Left Behind Act, said President Bush—who had made education one of his top issues as the governor of Texas—came into office with the intent of immediately remaking federal education policy.

Mr. Kress disputes the notion that the Education Department—then led by Secretary Rod Paige—wasn’t heavily involved in crafting the law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress first passed in 1965 at the urging of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

But Mr. Kress acknowledged that Mr. Paige, a former superintendent of schools in Houston, wasn’t leading the charge. In part that was out of necessity, Mr. Kress said, because the education effort began almost immediately after President Bush was sworn in, and Mr. Paige barely had a staff at that point.

Even after the president signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, many implementation decisions were made in the White House and trickled down. Former Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, who served in Mr. Bush’s first term, has said that suggestions for making the law more flexible, including when it came to testing students in special education, were often shot down by the White House during that time.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the White House’s extensive involvement in education policy during the first term was Ms. Spellings, the domestic-policy adviser. Her lengthy experience in education policy, as a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards, and her service as education adviser when Mr. Bush was the governor, made her a natural to take the lead on such matters.

Ms. Spellings left the White House to become education secretary the same day President Bush was sworn in for his second term, and the lead on education issues went with her.

“As long as Secretary Spellings is around and actively involved, she’ll be the main source of direction on education for the administration,” said David L. Shreve, a lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Mr. Kress, now a consultant on education issues in Austin, Texas, said: “I don’t think it’s any big secret in town there that the president has a lot of confidence in Margaret. Her moving out to the department had to … move to some extent the action to the department.”

When asked during a recent interview whether her close ties to President Bush helped her mission as education secretary, Ms. Spellings was emphatic.

“Hell, yes,” she said. “That relationship is a huge asset to me and this department and to this topic. He trusts me.”

A History of Partnerships

That same type of relationship of trust was evident between Mr. Bush’s predecessor and his own secretary of education. Though President Clinton was deeply interested in education, he often allowed Secretary Riley, who served all eight years of the Clinton administration, to direct policy on the subject. Both men had earned reputations as “education governors”—Mr. Clinton in Arkansas, and Mr. Riley in South Carolina.

“It was more like being in a partnership and trying to arrive at a common view about what the priorities ought to be, instead of the Cabinet secretary essentially being given directives to follow from the White House,” Mr. Cohen said.

The White House domestic-policy adviser who followed Ms. Spellings didn’t appear to share her level of interest in education. Claude A. Allen, who served about a year in that job, was a former Virginia secretary of health and human services. Mr. Allen left the White House in February and soon after was charged in Maryland with theft in an alleged scheme of getting refunds for stolen goods from Target and other stores.

President Bush last month tapped Karl Zinsmeister, the longtime editor of the magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, as his new domestic-policy adviser. Mr. Zinsmeister served from 1988 to 1989 as a member of the board of advisers to the Education Department’s National Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching, which helped choose education projects for federal funding but is no longer operating.

But it’s likely that Mr. Bush’s trust in Ms. Spellings will mean she’ll be directing education policy—for the most part.

And there’s another dynamic as well. President Bush, whose approval ratings have recently been at their all-time low, has more pressing worries, such as the war in Iraq and the continuing debate over immigration. It’s possible, however, that Mr. Bush may re-assert himself on the No Child Left Behind Act as the law’s scheduled reauthorization draws near.

The White House has retained a particular interest in the area of mathematics and science education, which is part of the president’s proposals to improve the nation’s economic competitiveness. (“House Committee Backs Math-Science Bills,” this issue.)

“You can see the White House’s fingerprints on a lot of stuff that is moving up on Capitol Hill,” said Glenn S. Ruskin, a lobbyist for the American Chemical Society, based in Washington. Although the Education Department is involved in the competitiveness effort, “it is the White House leading the push on this,” he said.

Some of that may be by political necessity.

“As you look at all the issues floundering around out there, I think this one [the competitiveness initiative] has the greatest chance for success,” Mr. Ruskin said. “It would be a real feather in the cap of the president and the administration if they can get this done.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as White House’s Education Policy Role Ebbs and Flows


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