Application, U.S. Secretary of Education

Wick Sloane offers the presidential candidates his one-year plan for a federal role in education when most attention will be elsewhere.

November 4, 2008

November 4, 2008

William E. Timmons Sr., head of the transition team, John McCain 2008
John Podesta, head of the transition team, Obama for America


Herewith my application for a 12-month stint as Secretary of Education, ending January 20, 2010, for whichever candidate is elected President today. Let’s admit the awful truth: For at least the next year, if not the entire four-year term, education is toast. Cooked. Done for. Not on the radar. Your guy has to stabilize the economy. Then, those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t end when the press lost interest. Oh, and healthcare, housing and global warming.

For whatever reason, the Founding Fathers put letters of marque into the U.S. Constitution and left education out. Even in calm, flush times, a federal Secretary of Education has been dealt a bad hand. The fact of U.S. education today is local and state control and mostly state and local funding. This move by the Framers has created inequities and outcomes that plague our society. National solutions will require the full attention of the President.

Here’s how I fit in. Why blow the credibility of your education A team – Kati Haycock or Linda Darling-Hammond or Lisa Keegan – right out of the gate? Don’t torture these able people by making them pretend they have the full support of the President and that education matters. Don’t make someone sit at 400 Maryland Ave., SW, until the inevitable press stories, “What Does the Secretary of Education Have To Show for The Year?”

Own up – do either of you really care about education? Your lobbying firm, Mr. Timmons, Timmons and Co., has one education client. Mr. Podesta, your Center for American Progress does fine work on big issues, but, here in election week, your education feature is a review of a book on graffiti? Let me be the fall guy for your guy, either of them.

My plan for the year:

One week a month, I will rent sound trucks, lean on National Public Radio, Fox News, Slate, American Riflemanand all the NRA publications, the iTunes Store, and Inside Higher Ed, to print and reprint, to broadcast and rebroadcast two speeches by President Lyndon Johnson. Never mind Republican or Democrat, left, center, or right: Mr. Podesta, Mr. Timmons – have either of you read these lately? LBJ’s Remarks at Southwest Texas State College Upon Signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, November 8, 1965, and his Special Message to the Congress on Education: "The Fifth Freedom,” February 5, 1968. U.S. history does include times when we, the people, have wrestled down huge problems without retreating to breakout sessions and small groups to whimper over the complexity of it all.

I will initiate a one-year moratorium on all education conferences. I will require all education trade associations and interest groups to move out of Washington, D.C. and into trailers, the kind used for “temporary classrooms,” at a K-12 public school or a community college campus in Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles or any rural location at least 250 miles from any airport with direct flights to Washington, D.C. To qualify for federal aid, institutions, be they K-12 or higher ed, will have to hold student referendums on budgets for conferences and trade association fees. The educational establishment has been talking to itself for long enough.

To boost the economic recovery, I will hold public hearings, using subpoena power if I have to, with all business school deans asking what admissions, curricular and pedagogical steps they have already taken to ensure their schools will never again loose on society such greedy, short-sighted lunatics like those responsible for the current economic meltdown. We’ll start with Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Wharton, Tuck, Darden and Chicago. I learned this week that the mood at leading business schools is deep gloom. Why? Hedge funds are not hiring. The only thing we learn from history…?

Secretaries of Education on their best days can’t do half a much as even a weak school board. I learned this in four years on a school board. Here’s a cruel parlor trick for gatherings of those who call ourselves educated leaders: Ask those who believe a strong public education system is essential to a strong economy and a just society to raise their hands. Then ask, “How many of you can name the chair of your local school board? Anyone on your school board?” School boards are a place where democracy works. If we show up.

Unless higher education plans to open elementary schools, will there be enough qualified students to fill the seats at colleges and universities? This is the situation we must address rather than excuse away to yet another generation. Recruiting foreign students to fill the seats is not a responsible solution. We know that any gathering of one or more higher education professionals will state that the U.S. has the best higher education system in the world. Why not turn there to stimulate the situation? Henceforth, School Board 101 and 102 will be a graduation requirement for bachelor’s degrees in all fields. The degrees will expire every ten years unless the graduates have run for school board wherever they live.

I’ll start on school boards by putting this model, SchoolsAreUs, out for the Open Source community to improve. A group of Harvard alumni took out a full-page ad in Harvard Magazine, built a web site and tried to spark democratic action to improve public schools, one step at a time. Never has a tree fallen more quietly in the woods. Whatever the flaws of this particular idea, school boards are what the nation has to work with for education reform. A Constitutional amendment for equal education may never happen. As Secretary, I’ll foster, not blame, school boards and the democratic process.

One more. For my year, we’ll close the Department of Education at 2:30 p.m., just like schools, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays with half days Wednesdays. Fridays, taking a page from most of higher education, we’ll close. We won’t go to the movies. Until your guy is ready for education, we’ll go to elementary schools and high schools and community colleges. We’ll read aloud to young children and tutor and help others with their homework. That’s the joy of education. We just never know what educating one more student will accomplish.

Two Washington insiders such as you both know that if the education-reform debates are inside the Beltway for this first term, your guy doesn’t have a prayer with the mess the nation is in. Why begin your first term with a sure negative for 2012? Let me, then, take Secretary of Education for either of you for year one, until economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, healthcare, housing and global warming are nailed. Keep your education talent out of harm's way.

You do want a second term, don’t you?


Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He is also the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.


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