Rees Takes Helm at Office of Innovation and Improvement

Published February 1, 2003

“If Washington insists on investing in the nation’s schools, then it is fair for taxpayers to expect their dollars to yield a positive return.”

That was what Nina Shokraii Rees suggested in 1999 as part of her critique of a major Clinton administration education proposal. At the time, Rees was senior education analyst for The Heritage Foundation and a contributing editor to School Reform News.

Widely regarded as one of the brightest minds of the school reform movement, Rees gets the opportunity to turn her words into action as she takes on her new role as Deputy Undersecretary of Education for the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII).

The office, which opened for business in December, will have a program budget of $2 billion and a full-time staff of approximately 100. Its budget includes some two dozen competitive grant programs, ranging from charter schools to dropout prevention. Education Secretary Rod Paige described the role of the new office as one of “leveraging competitive grant programs for maximum learning and maximum impact … and working with the Office of Educational Research and Improvement to rigorously evaluate their results.”

Among OII’s responsibilities will be to coordinate the public school choice and supplemental education services provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, working with the Department’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“Our programs are here to help,” Rees explained, “whether through an effective Arts Education program that integrates arts into teaching math, or a technology tool that will make it easier for children in a rural district to access quality education, or through alternative teacher certification.”

Rees brings to OII a diverse leadership team that includes:

  • Associate Deputy Undersecretary Michael Petrilli, who was previously involved in Paige’s strategic planning for the department and served as program director of the Fordham Foundation;
  • Senior Advisor Lori Yaklin, who ran the Michigan School Board Leaders Association after helping get it started; and,
  • Special Assistant Becky Davis Fleischer, who hails from the White House Office of Management and Budget after serving at the Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation.

OII also houses the Department’s Public Charter Schools program, whose new director, Dean Kern, comes to Washington with 20 years of education experience, including as a charter school principal and senior charter school consultant for the Colorado Department of Education. Among the grants Kern will oversee will be a program specifically targeted toward helping charter schools secure safe and functional facilities.

Rees, who comes to her position following a stint as domestic policy advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, remains mindful of the concerns she had expressed before joining the administration. When asked how she plans to assure her program yields taxpayers their positive return, she cited the implementation of new program goals that will be used to measure the success of each program. By continuing to develop stronger internal evaluations, she added, “our office is going to measure the progress of each grant in terms of its value added to raising school achievement or boosting teacher quality.”

Grant competitions began in late January 2003 and are announced on the office’s Web site at

Guide to School Choice Provisions of NCLB

The federal Department of Education on December 4 released its draft guidance on the school choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

While most observers found no surprises in the 28-page document, the publication will be valuable to parents in providing them with a concise yet comprehensive overview of their options and the obligations of school officials under No Child Left Behind.

A main focus of the draft guidance is to make clear the responsibilities of officials at chronically failing schools to offer to transfer students to better public schools. According to the law, all students in a designated school must have the opportunity to transfer, with priority given to the lowest-achieving children from low-income families.

Public school choice must also be offered to students whose schools have been identified as persistently dangerous, or when a child has been the victim of a violent crime on school property.

“An LEA [local educational agency] may not use lack of capacity to deny students the option to transfer,” the guidance document states, noting that if an LEA does not have the capacity to accommodate the demand for student transfers, then “the LEA must create additional capacity or provide choices of other schools.”

The guidance also addresses the details about how and when schools must offer to make supplemental services portable so students can elect to purchase those services from nonpublic providers.

The draft guidance is available on the Department’s Web site at

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].