November 5, 2008

Not at the top of the agenda

Last week, I was puzzled when Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik e-mailed me to ask whom I'd suggest for the next Secretary of Education. I perfectly understand the journalist's desire to have material ready to roll with predictable events (in this case, something for election day, but also the prepackaged pieces rolling out today and over the next week). But there are a few reasons why the post of Secretary of Education struck me as maybe not the highest priority for an Obama administration:

  • The major crisis in this country is economic, and that will occupy the attention of the new administration, to the virtual exclusion of any other initiative that is not clearly tied to it.
  • The major action in a transition is the transition task force's (or task forces') work. Initial appointments are one but only one task of the transition scrum.
  • In the federal bureaucracy, some of the trickier appointments are less the top of the department than the relationship between the cabinet-level appointment and the sub-cabinet appointments. The resignation of Diana Auer Jones as assistant secretary for postsecondary education is Object Lesson #1 in appointments: pay attention to more than one level. 
I felt somewhat contrary, thought for a few seconds, and asked myself, "Okay, suppose I didn't mention any of the Usual Suspects. Who would I recommend for the top of the department? Someone who has political experience and obvious gravitas in education and who could gain instant confirmation." Governors and former governors who were active in education policy are the obvious reservoirs for that. As a member of no organized party in the Will Rogers sense (at least until Plouffe and Axelrod got into the act), I suggested two former Southern governors for Obama and two semi-moderates in the unlikely case McCain won and needed a few breather confirmation hearings. And then I made a suggestion for the Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, which didn't appear in the article (though one of the commenters suggested her for Secretary of Education): Molly Corbett Broad.

I'm amused by the comments on the piece, which occasionally begin with the assumption that John Podesta would really care a whit about Inside Higher Ed's list of suggestions. Riiiiiiiiiiight. But that was the starting-point of the article (or maybe something to amuse or goad readers), and within a month or two anyway, we can compare Obama's real choice to the list in the article. And then move on to some discussion that is less personality-based.

With a few exceptions, education discussions will continue to be about setting the table, not the agenda. College affordability and science/technology research are likely to be the most likely pieces to be addressed in 2009, because they're easily tied to the consequences of our economic disaster and ways to get out of it. If there's a third likely item, it is in early childhood education because of the investment argument (more about human capital and investment arguments in another post later this month). If anything else becomes obvious as low-hanging fruit, it'll get knocked down and gobbled up, but those will be opportunistic. The obvious tough issues are going to remain tough issues. I say this less because I'm prophetic (my Ph.D. came with a rear-view mirror, not a crystal ball) than my desire to recognize the blazingly obvious.

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Posted in Education policy on November 5, 2008 9:40 AM |