Bush Education Appointee Leaves Big Shoes to Fill

Published March 1, 2006

Few people playing a word-association game would say “innovation” in response to the word “government.” More likely, they’d say things like “bureaucratic” or just plain “big.”

But since 2002, Nina Shokraii Rees has been busy breaking the bureaucratic mold. As the first director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), acting to carry out President George W. Bush’s priorities, Rees was probably the most energetic and effective advocate for parental choice and other education innovations ever to grace the federal executive branch.

On January 13, Rees left the government to join the California-based Knowledge Universe Learning Group, a private company that invests in entrepreneurial education ventures such as K12, Kindercare, and Edsolutions. In her new position, her primary focus is on ensuring choice and quality in the movement toward pre-kindergarten schooling in many states.

Christopher J. Doherty, director of the Department of Education’s Reading First Program, has been named to fill the position as acting assistant deputy secretary.

Lasting Impact

Projects that Rees helped start while in government are likely to have an impact for many years to come. Among advances for school choice, the most significant may be the enactment and implementation of the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act–also known as D.C. vouchers. Rees speaks with enthusiasm of this advance, noting in addition to 1,700 children from low-income homes getting a chance for better education, “the evaluation of this program will give us far more information about the effects … on student achievement than any other pilot we have ever launched.”

In a January 12 statement on Rees’ departure, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings mentioned how Rees had “fought hard for the nation’s first federal school choice program,” the D.C. vouchers. Among other accomplishments, Spellings cited Rees’ work in expanding charter schools by publicizing their successes in her publications, organizing the National Charter Schools Conference, and channeling $20 million to Gulf Coast charter schools to help them recover from last summer’s deadly hurricanes.

As OII director, Rees “was a catalyst for grassroots change and accountability-based reform,” Spellings said.

Tireless Advocate

None of that surprises the Washingtonians who followed Rees’ work before the George W. Bush administration. From 1997 to 2001, Rees was chief education analyst for the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and skillfully used that position to work with Congress and state legislatures to advocate school reforms, particularly those benefitting underprivileged children. She testified before congressional committees on the benefits of school choice and published extensively on that issue.

“It would be difficult to point out anyone in the education policy world who has been more right about more things than Nina,” said Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. “And she not only knows instinctively what’s right, but she’s proven she knows how to get it done.”

In looking back on her time in federal office, Rees said she was “very proud” of her office’s work with Supplemental Educational Services (SES). “Thanks to this program,” she noted, “over 250,000 low-income children are benefitting from the kind of tutoring that was once available only to those who could afford it.” Her office had to set up guidelines for, and respond to many questions from the field about, the tutoring for which families become eligible when their schools chronically fall below the standards states set to comply with NCLB.

Groundbreaking Work

In expediting SES, “we have tried to walk the fine line between promoting entrepreneurship/innovation and accountability as well as a federal agency can, though the road has been and remains bumpy,” Rees said. Her office also did groundbreaking work with Parent Information Resource Centers, which help inform parents around the nation of their rights to public school choice and tutoring under the terms of NCLB.

“It’s rare to land a job in a field you love at a federal agency and grow to actually accomplish some of your goals, so I feel very blessed for the opportunity I had,” Rees observed. She was quick to add she would have not reached any goals without the support of a high-energy staff, including Mike Petrilli (her deputy, now an executive vice president at the Fordham Foundation in Washington, DC), Stacy Kreppel (who handles SES), Jack Klenk (head of the office of nonpublic education), John Fiegel (head of the office of parental information and choice), and Dean Kern (director of the charter schools program).

As she did at Heritage, Rees leaves behind an impressive body of literary works that will promote the essential rightness and goodness of school choice for a long time to come. These include an “Innovations in Education” book series with impressive volumes on how to (1) open successful charter and magnet schools, (2) create successful district-wide school choice programs, (3) bring about strong SES/tutoring programs, and (4) provide alternative routes to teacher certification. Her office also published a book offering parents detailed advice on how to choose the best schools for their children. Her weekly online newsletter, The Education Innovator, has offered a steady flow of timely news about grassroots education reform.

Unless others pick up the pace, the energy level for federal advocacy of school choice will be diminished now that Nina Rees has returned to the private sector.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

The “Innovations in Education” book series is available online at http://www.ed.gov/about/pubs/intro/innovations.html.

Choosing a School for Your Child is available at http://www.ed.gov/parents/schools/find/choose/index.html.

The Education Innovator is available at http://www.ed.gov/news/newsletters/innovator/?src=ln.