by Lowman S. Henry | June 30, 2003

Former PA Secretary of Education is having a national impact

It has been some time since we checked in with Eugene Hickok, the former Pennsylvania Education Secretary who hangs his hat today at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

For those of you who don’t know Dr. Hickok, he started out as a political science professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle. After a stint on his local school board he became Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education under former Governor Tom Ridge.

During his time at the helm of the Keystone state’s education bureaucracy Hickok did something almost unheard of in this slow to change state – he brought dramatic reform to Pennsylvania’s moribund system of public education.

Today’s debate over public education centers on funding. Governor Ed Rendell and the Republican-controlled legislature have dueling tax reform plans, and vastly different roadmaps for reaching everyone’s common goal of leaving no child behind.

It was different when Ridge and Hickok were in charge. Then the battles were over programs. And while the changes brought about on Hickok’s watch fell short of the full school choice proposals that turned out to be the elusive holy grail of the Ridge Administration, progress was made.

Let’s remember it was under Hickok’s leadership that Pennsylvania got charter schools, cyber charter schools, and some privately managed schools. We also got tough new testing standards. And, those standards were given some teeth when a law was passed allowing the state to take over grossly underperforming school districts in places like Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Chester.

It is true much more should have been accomplished, but this is Pennsylvania after all so Secretary Hickok’s achievements, and the Ridge Administration’s efforts at reform, at least put the brakes on the damaging PSEA-inspired policies that historically have placed learning and children at the bottom of the priority list.

If there is one place even more daunting to be a free market thinker on education policy than Harrisburg it is the nation’s capitol. Give credit to President George W. Bush for taking Secretary Hickok to Washington and making him the Undersecretary of Education. In that role, Dr. Hickok has been charged with implementing the President’s No Child Left Behind program.

The No Child Left Behind program is actually a wide array of federal initiatives that requires schools to perform. Students in grades three through eight are tested, then money, help, or sanctions flow from the results of those tests.

Hickok’s work on that program drew the attention of the Washington Post a couple of months ago. In an unusually balanced article, Hickok was given credit for bringing the same passion for reform to the U.S. Department of Education that he had in Harrisburg.

“I feel American public education needs to go through a transformation and school choice should be part of it,” Hickok told the Post. “It’s just common sense.”

It is a brave man who tries to bring “common sense” to national education policy. But, Hickok’s efforts to reform America’s schools are drawing plaudits even from entrenched national educational interests. Tom Houlihan, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, lauded the undersecretary for his “congenial and concerned” approach to working with school officials to implement the No Child Left Behind program.

That is Hickok’s style: low key, driven, results-oriented. He calmly told the Post: “The fact is we need to do a much better job. It is stunning to me that we, the wealthiest nation on earth, can have 60% of our kids in certain places not able to read. We ought to be outraged.”

We are outraged Dr. Hickok. We taxpayers have been pouring ever-increasing amounts of money each year into a system that is not producing the desired results. With Hickok gone, the education debate in Pennsylvania has regressed to yet another money grab. Performance improving policies are again on the back burner.

But it is reassuring to know the man who made such a difference in the lives of millions of Pennsylvania school children is now having that same impact across America. We will need such leadership if we are to ever attain our goal of leaving no child behind.