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New Head of Education Department

New Head of Education Department
Expected to Focus on K-12

By Charles Pekow

Though a new leader will soon take the helm at the Department of Education, some educators say the Bush administration’s gaze will stay fixed on K-12 issues instead of higher education.

Secretary of Education Roderick Paige, who announced his decision to resign Nov. 15, will likely be replaced by Margaret Spellings, a longtime aide to President Bush. Her formal appointment will come after a Senate confirmation.

In announcing his departure, Paige released a list of 10 of the “many accomplishments” the Education Department achieved during his tenure. While acknowledging that his list didn’t include everything, he only mentioned higher education once, when he referred to lowering the student financial-aid default rate.

Paige emphasized his work with elementary and secondary education, such as implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, though he also mentioned some other initiatives he shepherded, such as improving the department’s Web site.

Before becoming secretary of education, Paige had been a school superintendent in Texas, and his career had focused exclusively on K-12 education. In a statement about his resignation, Paige said, “I came to help President Bush launch NCLB and Reading First and to establish a culture of accountability in American education.” He elaborated on the programs he referred to, but he didn’t mention colleges.

A Texas colleague of Bush, Spellings will probably also concentrate her efforts on K-12 issues. Like Paige, Spellings’ career up to this point has concerned only K-12 education. She has served as associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards and advised Bush and Texas Gov. William Clements on education reform. And when Bush announced Spellings’ nomination at the White House, both he and Spellings spoke only of elementary and secondary education.

“The focus of Rod Paige’s tenure clearly was NCLB,” noted Jim Hermes, senior legislative associate for the American Association of Community Colleges. “I don’t think there was a real (emphasis) on higher-education policy because of that. … All beginning indicators are that the emphasis will remain on elementary and secondary education, but it is way too early to tell.”

Hermes added that “Spellings has a lot of respect from both sides of the aisle and a lot of key leaders, so I think there’s a lot of optimism out there in terms of her coming in as secretary of education.”

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who will take over as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in January, met with Spellings shortly after her nomination. He later issued a statement saying they discussed a variety of issues, including workforce development and continuing education. Enzi indicated that he would support her nomination.

“I’ve worked with Ms. Spellings on policy before and have found her to be intelligent, hardworking and well-prepared. She also has a reputation for listening and hearing what people say. I am optimistic that she will be a key player in addressing the many challenges facing our nation’s education system,” Enzi said.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is the ranking Democrat on the HELP committee, feels that Margaret is “well qualified for the position,” said Jim Manley, Kennedy’s press secretary. “It’s obvious she has the ear of the president, and (Kennedy) looks forward to working with her on everything from early childhood education to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In this Republican Congress, we failed to reauthorize HEA this year. Kennedy hopes we can move as fast as possible next year.” HELP hasn’t planned its confirmation hearing yet. “We haven’t even gotten the paperwork,” Manley said. But he said one key issue Kennedy will want to ask Spellings about is why the administration has not kept Pell Grants in line with inflation.

Meanwhile, Enzi press secretary Coy Knobel said Enzi hasn’t set the HELP agenda for 2005. “He’s not officially chairman yet, and we don’t have all the members decided. He’ll want to sit down and talk with subcommittee chairs and the White House. It’s too premature to set (an) agenda.” But Knobel said Enzi is interested in education and technology, distance learning and making college affordable.

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