HotSeat 5: Nina Rees On Secretary Paige, Conservative Think Tanks, and Kennedy's Role In SES

Who better for HotSeat #5 than Nina Rees, the former Heritage policy analyst and Administration official who recently left the USDE for the private sector?

On the HotSeat, Rees comments on Jack Jennings' NCLB report (ouch!), explains why she left the USDE and what she’s doing now (cha-ching!), crushes on the Education Trust, Secretary Paige, and – well, almost – Secretary Spellings, blames Ted Kennedy for supplemental services (can it be true?), and describes what it was like being included in last summer’s infamous "Hot For Education" post.

Quick, check it out now before someone comes by and makes you do some work.


There's been a lot of debate over the past couple of weeks about how the Center on Education Policy report portrayed NCLB, and how the press covered the report findings. What's your take?

NR: I find it odd that national newspapers like the New York Times would give such prominent coverage to a survey such as this one and to portray Jack Jennings as an independent, non-partisan voice on NCLB. Jack is a partisan Democrat and has been for 30 years, and believes most problems can be solved with more money. It’s not surprising that he found state and district officials willing to say as much.

OK, then. With stints in the VP's office and at the USDE, you seemed like you were having such a great time in the Administration. Why leave now?

NR: Five years in an Administration is a long time. I think the average tenure of a typical White House employee is 18 months, which I surpassed. As for the Dept, I think it's important for anyone who walks into a government job to go in with a few clear goals and not get too comfortable in the job. In short, I felt like my job at the Department was done. And I became a mom last year so I wanted to invest a bit in my daughter's future.

Speaking of accomplishments, I'm told that my post saying that not that much had happened at OII while you were there was all wrong. What would you say that you and the office accomplished, or that you're most proud of?

NR: People tend to focus on our work in the area of school choice, but the office had a much larger portfolio. Among other things, I am very proud of the investment we were able to make in such entities as the New Teacher Project to attract high quality teachers, New Schools Venture Fund to support the work of successful charter management organizations, and Public Private Ventures to help approve and assist community and faith-based organizations as Supplemental Services providers.

Ah, yes, supplemental services -- everyone's favorite topic.

NR: The enactment of the DC school choice program and our work around SES were important personal accomplishments for me. We were able to launch the DC choice plan within months of its enactment, complete with a randomized field test, and despite the problems with SES, we did all that we could to get the program off the ground swiftly and to offer quick timely advice to the field. The rest will require a change in the statute.

"The rest will require a change in the statute" – what's that mean?

NR: Well, depending on whose side you are on, people tend to think that SES is not being implemented well. Some want more provider accountability (which will require some form of federal statute explaining what we mean), others want districts to do a better job of notifying parents (again, something that Congress needs to spell out better), etc. In other words, we tried to encourage "best practices" through our guidance and through funding a clearinghouse of information at AIR through a website called tutorsforkids.com but we can't go after bad actors given the tools at our disposal at the federal level - though Secretary Spellings’ pilots are an attempt at getting at the problem - something worth watching closely.

I know it's only been a few weeks, but what exactly is your new company, Knowledge Universe, all about in terms of what it does and its size?

NR: It's a company owned by the Milken brothers that has investments in early childhood education, before and after school programs, online curricula and schools (such as K-12, the online curriculum company) .

And what are you doing there?

NR: My job is to help grow their investments in the U.S. and abroad especially in the area of early childhood education. For now, I have been focusing my attention on their SES business and on ways to inject the concept of choice and a multiple delivery system in discussions surrounding Universal Pre-K.

Why not go back to one of the think tanks like Heritage where you made your name and write papers and be on panels?

NR: Been there, done that. I loved my time at Heritage but I wanted a new challenge. I also wanted to play a role in building or supporting actual education programs that serve children rather than critique public policy. As for panels and papers, I hope to be able to do both - though from a slightly different angle.

You've been in the room with lots of folks that most of us have only read about, so what are some of the things about NCLB, Secty Paige, or Secty Spellings that people don't understand or misinterpret but need or might want to know?

NR: As a former Superintendent, Secretary Paige always saw problems from a district perspective. But because our rapport at the federal level is with states, rather than districts, he couldn't fully meet the unique needs of his fellow district superintendents. I also thought he was one of the hardest working cabinet secretaries in the Bush Administration. He didn't revel in the glory of the job much.

What about NCLB? I hesitate to ask.

NR: I think people are quick to blame NCLB and the federal government for problems that often have nothing to do with the two. Some like Philadelphia Superintendent Paul Vallas and Chicago's Arne Duncan have been able to seize the pressure points that NCLB has created to drive real change in their schools but we need more local leaders who are trying to meet the spirit of NCLB.

Hold on. Are you seriously praising Arne Duncan for his work on NCLB? He and his people have fought NCLB every step of the way.

NR: I was talking about the "spirit" of the law. Duncan understands the importance of standards and choice and has already turned over the governance of a number of his schools to different chartering outfits which means he is serious about closing the achievement gap and using innovative methods to reach his goals.

People used to call the SES provision the Sylvan amendment, but I've never seen it reported for sure whether it was they or other industry folks who actually got that in there. What really happened on that? Is the ed industry that powerful?

NR: Honestly, I don't know. It would make sense since they have been one of the leaders in the field. However, it's worth noting that Sylvan's parent company is now selling its SES division. As for the industry in general, I don't think the industry was as well organized then as it is now. I do know that the initial idea (to replace the private school choice provision of NCLB with SES) was Senator Kennedy's.

We have Ted Kennedy to thank for the SES provision?

NR: To me, it marked one of the most important shifts in policy making by the Senator and a shift that the traditional school choice community has never fully appreciated or understood.

OK, you've got to explain that a little bit.

NR: I’ve got an upcoming piece in The Gadfly that will cover this.

In your experience, who's the most effective education lobbyist in DC?

NR: They are not lobbyists, per se, but in terms of impact on public policy, the Education Trust tops the list. I think the world of Kati Haycock and though she is no longer there, I found Amy Wilkins to be one of the sharpest thinkers in the field. But when it comes to issues like choice, I would be remiss not to recognize the NEA.

Who's the hardest person to debate on a panel?

NR: I found Bella Rosenberg to be one of the best debaters in the business. I am sorry she is no longer with the AFT. Checker Finn of course is one of the best as well and, though I hate to admit it, I think my fellow Virginia Tech alumnus, Andy Rotherham, is slowly getting there. I saw him take on Dr. Bill Bennett and Senator Lamar Alexander on a panel at AEI once and I was pretty impressed.

What was it like being on the "Hot For Education" list? Did it affect your work or how people treated you? Are you getting in shape for the 2006 edition?

NR: I didn't realize I had something in common with the great Senator from Massachusetts! As for the 2006 issue, I think Andy really wants my spot -especially if he is in line to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Boring as I think the issue is, I have to ask how big or little is the vouchers issue among middle/right/Republican thinkers these days -- and is there likely to be any big push on it soon?

NR: I think it remains a big issue. The Alliance for School Choice, which leads the charge, has an impressive board of supporters (not all of whom are middle/right Republicans, by the way.) I never understood how vouchers became a Republican issue. Politically though, it's still a hard sell. You need another Supreme Court decision around one of the state Blaine amendments to see it enacted in more states I think.

Where are the new and compelling education ideas coming from on the right -- and what are they? It seems like everyone's stuck on vouchers/ choice, deregulation of teacher training, etc. -- the same old list from ten years ago.

NR: I agree with you in that there aren't many new ideas out there. However, the Hoover Institute's Koret Task Force is probably where I would go for fresh new ideas. I'm just not sure if they consider themselves a right leaning outfit. I also think that Rick Hess is probably one of the most prolific writers and innovative thinkers in the country - and he manages to take nice long breaks down at the Caribbean while keeping his day job.

What about you – what type of new ideas are you into right now?

NR: After 3 years at the US DoE, I have to admit that I prefer realistic reforms over nice bold ideas and groups that can put concepts into practice. To this end, I have found the work of the New Teacher Project around teacher recruitment particularly interesting. Similarly, and I am biased of course, the TAP Foundation's work around teacher training and compensation has really helped acclimate teachers to the notion of pay for performance. And the Broad Foundation's work to identify and reward superintendents who are closing the gap and their fast track superintendent training program are two of the greatest contributions to education reform. And with Mike back at the Fordham Foundation, I am sue we will see lots of innovative federal education reform recipes in the near future.

What's the relationship between all the Republican think tanks -- CER, Fordham, and Heritage -- does everyone get along, ideologically and otherwise, or is it all one big catfight like among the other education groups? Is there competition for ideas, for turf, and for funding?

Heritage has a pretty solid base of support so they don't have to raise funds for their education work specifically. I see Fordham as more of a think tank and CER as a do tank so I hope that they are hitting different sources of funding. If I wanted to pull together a group of state legislators, community leaders and parents on a week's notice, I'd call Jeanne. If I wanted to pull the greatest thinkers and academics, I'd call Checker and if I wanted to hit Hill staff, I'd call Heritage.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice Hot seat! :)

12:50 AM  
Blogger Michele at AFT said...


If you really wanted to put her on the hot seat, you should have asked her about a statement she made a few years ago when she was still at Heritage where she basically argued that schooling shouldn't be compulsory. Wouldn't that qualify as leaving some children behind? It used to be on the Heritage Web site , but they have since taken it down (no surprise there). Susan Ohanian still has it on her site. Here is the offending remark and the link.

Arvid: Why all this frenzy to keep shoving ever more years of education down everyone's throat? Why not let underachievers out after junior high school and stick them in a trade institute for job training?

Nina Shokraii Rees: I think that is a fine idea. I am not a big fan of the current educational system, which presumes you have to go to school for 12 years before you graduate. I think we should have more alternative schools for people from all walks of life and different interests!


Michele at AFT

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michele -- What is wrong with her comment "I am not a big fan of the current educational system, which presumes you have to go to school for 12 years before you graduate. I think we should have more alternative schools for people from all walks of life and different interests!"?

We know not all kids are motivated to learn in the way "forced schooling" wants them to learn. We know we lose so many students in middle school who become drop outs in high schools and problems later on. We know not all children want to, need to or should go to college. We know kids are not motivated by your teachers, the teachers of the NEA, etc. Heck we know there are many, many bad teachers that need to be removed from the classroom but your union will not permit it.

Why do you not put the needs of children before that of the adults? Isn't that what education is for -- the children?

We need alternative schools. We need flexible hours in our high schools to accommodate those children that have to work or parent. We need back strong voc/tech schools that also stress academics. We need to prepare all children to be successful in life, to think for themselves, to stop depending upon the government to support them when they drop out (the country cannot afford it). We need students to be encouraged to be entrepreneurs, leaders, innovators, follow their dreams!

I am sorry but this is not the goal of forced schooling.


5:09 AM  
Blogger Michele at AFT said...


Actually, I think I am putting kids interests first- I don't think we should let them drop out at 12.

Michele at AFT

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When did Nina work at Knowledge Universe (Millken). It dissolved in December of 2004!

3:03 PM  

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