Advisors Take Public Roles In Campaigns

Press Releases

August 12, 2008

(From EDUCATION WEEK, August 12, 2008)


Education Policy Experts Offer Varied Ideas to McCain, Obama

It’s become a familiar sight for education policy mavens this election season: panel discussions, in Washington and elsewhere, hashing out the presumptive presidential nominees’ differences on performance pay for teachers, private school vouchers, and other reliable topics of debate.

But the candidates themselves haven’t appeared at these events—it’s been their surrogates, experts who are helping to craft education plans for Sen. John McCain or Sen. Barack Obama.

Such advisers, whether paid staff members or volunteers, help send signals on the policy directions their candidates would pursue if elected to the White House.

And successful candidates often tap campaign aides to serve in their administrations. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was a key member of President Bush’s education team during his 2000 campaign. She worked as White House domestic-policy adviser in Mr. Bush’s first term before moving into her Cabinet post for his second.

“I think advisers matter, especially in this environment, where neither candidate is going to have a lot of time or a lot interest in getting into the details on education,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, who was a political appointee in the Department of Education during Mr. Bush’s first term.

“Who a candidate surrounds himself with … can be a very good window” on which policies he’s likely to pursue, Mr. Petrilli said.

Two Camps?

But Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, another Washington research organization, who is independently working with the campaign of Sen. Obama, cautioned that while advisers can make recommendations, it is ultimately senior campaign officials—and the candidate—who develop proposals.

“It’s brainstorming and advice-giving. The role of advisers is often overstated,” said Mr. Rotherham, who advised Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in her bid for the Democratic nomination this year.

Lisa Graham Keegan, a former state superintendent in Sen. McCain’s home state, Arizona, has been the presumptive Republican standard-bearer’s most visible surrogate on education issues.

Observers say much of Mr. McCain’s education platform—which includes expanding private school vouchers that could be used at religious schools, promoting online education as a way of broadening school choice, and allowing principals to determine which teachers in their schools would be eligible for performance-based bonus pay—reflects policies that Ms. Keegan advocated both as a state schools chief and as the chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, a coalition of conservative-leaning education officials.

Sen. Obama, the Illinois Democrat who is set to formally become his party’s nominee later this month, has assembled a team of education advisers with a broad range of views, and has sent a variety of surrogates to debates and other events.

The diversity of perspectives among his advisers makes it hard to gauge how an Obama administration would address such thorny matters as the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, some observers say.

“In Obama’s campaign, what we see is an inclusive and big-tent approach,” said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group. “He’s got advisers who are unrepentant cheerleaders for NCLB; he’s got advisers who are concerned about NCLB.”

Mr. Obama’s education advisers can be divided into two distinct camps, several observers said.

On one end of the spectrum are those whom Mr. Petrilli and others characterized as “fairly traditional liberal” types, who have made their mark in areas such as educational equity and civil rights. They include Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, who has done extensive research on teacher quality, and Christopher F. Edley, the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked on affirmative action issues in President Bill Clinton’s administration.

And then, Mr. Petrilli said, there is a “younger, thirtysomething crowd of school reformers,” including Jon Schnur and Michael Johnston, who co-founded New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit that trains principals to serve in struggling schools, as well as Mr. Rotherham, who served as an education aide to President Clinton.

Uniting Democrats?

That contingent is more closely identified with the rise of charter schools and proposals to redesign the education system.

The makeup of the Obama team “suggests two very different ways of thinking about the challenges [facing schools] and tackling them,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that espouses free-market-based policy approaches. “For me, it’s hard to know exactly which way his administration would lean.”

Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee that supports Democratic candidates for local, state, and federal office, who has been in contact with some of Sen. Obama’s advisers, said that even those working within the campaign aren’t certain which of the two factions would be likely to dominate in an Obama administration.

Mr. Rotherham said the senator is considering all points of view, and then using the information to reach his own conclusions.

“Obama sort of draws on a bunch of sources and puts them into coherent” proposals, Mr. Rotherham said. “He follows a more independent path … and isn’t especially beholden to any particular ideological viewpoint or constituency, which allows him to think through the issues like an adult.”

John I. Wilson, the executive director of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, which has endorsed Sen. Obama for president, praised his choice of advisers, particularly Ms. Darling-Hammond and Mr. Edley, as well as Inez Tenenbaum, a former state schools chief in South Carolina.

“I think he’s tried to surround himself with people who will bring him solid research and scholarly advice,” Mr. Wilson said, even if they aren’t always in agreement with the teachers’ union.

Some Democrats hope that Sen. Obama’s education team may be positioned to help address the polarization that the NCLB law has caused among Democrats in Congress. Although the law was passed with big, bipartisan majorities in 2001, its accountability rules are controversial, and many Democrats contend it’s underfunded.

“I actually believe that the differences can be bridged with the right leadership and the right spirit of cooperation, … but the campaign is not quite there yet,” Ms. Piché said.

Arizona Connection

In Sen. McCain’s campaign, Ms. Keegan and F. Philip Handy, who chaired the Florida state board of education during Jeb Bush’s tenure as that state’s governor, are the top advisers on education, said Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior policy adviser for the
McCain campaign.

Mr. Handy remains closely associated with Gov. Bush’s education agenda in Florida, which included vouchers, performance-based teacher pay, and a system for grading schools according to their students’ performance on state tests.

Ms. Keegan has worked with Sen. McCain since her days as Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, a position she held from 1995 to 2001, and also advised him during his 2000 bid for the presidency.

She has appeared on behalf of the campaign at a variety of events in and outside of Washington in recent months. During a forum on education and the campaign last month at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, Ms. Keegan said that a group of about 15 McCain advisers initially reviews education proposals. The ideas are then vetted by a broader group of about 80 educators and other experts nationwide.

Mr. Wilson of the nea said that it is the union’s sense that Sen. McCain, whom he described as having been “awol on education most of his Senate career,” is relying almost solely on Ms. Keegan to craft his education policy.

Mr. Wilson said that if Sen. McCain were elected and tapped Ms. Keegan for a major position in the Education Department, the union would likely oppose her confirmation. He cited allegations of financial mismanagement during Ms. Keegan’s tenure at the helm of the Education Leaders Council.

Ms. Keegan left that position in 2004. An Education Department audit, released in January 2006, revealed that the organization “drew down and expended federal funds it was not entitled to.” In the 2003 fiscal year, it said, the elc overdrew its grant by $495,326, which the report blamed on inadequate controls within the organization. ("Audit Faults Spending by Leaders Council," Feb. 15 and "Schools on Their Own With ‘Following the Leaders’ Work," April 12, 2006.)

Some of the items questioned in the federal audit involved Ms. Keegan, such as charges for a conference at a Wyoming resort that appeared to be unrelated to the purposes of the grant.

Ms. Keegan said in an interview late last week that the audit “was blown out of proportion.”

“It was a very small audit issue. It wasn’t mismanagement,” Ms. Keegan said. “It was a learning experience, for sure.”

She said the Education Department last year settled the audit and paid grant money to the group, which is now called Following the Leaders.

Ms. Piché of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights had praise for Ms. Keegan.

“Lisa is smart, she’s personable, she’s effective, she’s a great spokesperson for” Sen. McCain, she said. “In that sense, he’s picked a good adviser.”