NLCB Insider Susan Neuman Re-Emerges As Potential Obama Voice
By Andrew Brownstein
The New York Times recently profiled
three educators whose work might inspire the
next draft of school reform in an Obama
administration. Among the community activists
and academics, one name jumped out: Susan B.
Neuman, professor of educational studies at the
University of Michigan.
In 2001, President George W. Bush tapped her to
lead the office responsible for rolling out his
signature education law, No Child Left Behind.
The journey from Bush acolyte to Obama mentor
suggests a radical transformation. "She quit in
2003, disillusioned with the law," according to
the Times article, which calls her recent workΓ’
including a new book to be released this monthΓ’
"a vast mea culpa for her time in Washington."
The insider-turned-apostate is an irresistible
storyline, one we're likely to see more of as
Bush leaves office and the skeletons begin to
rattle out of the White House closets. Already,
the Bush Administration has produced Paul
O'Neill, the former Treasury Secretary who
claimed Bush's inner circle began clamoring for
war in Iraq 10 days after the inauguration,
eight months before 9/11. Christine Todd
Whitman, the former head of the Environmental
Protection Agency, quit in opposition to Vice
President Dick Cheney's insistence on easing
air pollution controls. Most recently, former
Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan wrote that
the White House favored "a political propaganda
campaign" over well-established facts to sell
the Iraq War.
In Neuman's case, however, that storyline
doesn't quite work. Her departure from
Washington was quick, mysterious and, until
now, never fully explained. According to eight
former U.S. Department of Education officials Γ’
and confirmed by e-mails and others who knew
her Γ’ Neuman was forced to resign when an
ethics investigation put her in the middle of
an all-too-familiar Bush nexus of self-dealing,
conflicts of interest and Texas.
"She's clearly engaging in revisionist
history," said Michael Petrilli, an official at
the department from 2001 to 2005 who now serves
as vice president of the conservative Thomas B.
Fordham Foundation. "She quit in the same way
Richard Nixon resigned in the middle of
Watergate. If Susan hadn't resigned, she would
have been fired."
At the time she became assistant secretary of
elementary and secondary education, Neuman was
a leading figure in the fight to close
achievement gaps that was at the heart of No
Child Left Behind. In academic circles, she was
known for her groundbreaking work studying the
learning environments of students in inner city
Philadelphia. "I've had my heart broken many
times when I see the quality of instruction,"
she once said. Neuman described pre-schools
where the children lay in cribs with the
television on all day while books stayed in
unopened boxes. In another school she visited,
children had to sit on potty seats for two
hours per day.
P. David Pearson, dean of the University of
California-Berkeley's Graduate School of
Education, worked with Neuman when they served
as co-directors of Michigan's Center for the
Improvement of Early Reading Ability. He calls
her "a first-rate researcher." But like a lot
of Neuman admirers, Pearson observed a dramatic
transformation after her appointment by Bush.
"Boy, it was a sea change," said Pearson.
"Rigor Γ’ really the illusion of rigor Γ’ rather
than resources became her mantra. She was
speaking out in favor of approaches she had
opposed in her research. She began talking like
a true believer."
It's easy to forget amidst all that's ensued
from Iraq to Katrina to Wall Street that Bush
was supposed to be the "education president."
Neuman's selection as assistant secretary
demonstrated the primacy the administration
placed on reading and research-based practices,
both of which had been hallmarks of Bush's
Texas Reading Initiative. But the transition
from Texas to the national stage was rocky. In
a June article in Time, Neuman likened the
department to "a pressure cooker" where she
faced conservatives who wanted to expose the
failure of public education and "blow it up a
The department was dysfunctional in other ways.
While Rod Paige was ostensibly the education
secretary, many former officials say they got
their marching orders from the person who
ultimately succeeded him, Margaret Spellings,
then a domestic policy advisor at the White
House. Her conduit was Beth Ann Bryan Γ’ Paige
advisor, friend of Spellings and associate of
First Lady Laura Bush.
Such an environment would have tested the most
Machiavellian of government operatives, but
critically, Neuman had virtually no experience
in politics or management. Over time, she grew
increasingly isolated. "She'd be very angry
about something, make a decision in the
evening, and it was undone by morning," said
Richard Long, a veteran lobbyist for the
International Reading Association. "In the
field, she'd say one thing, and have to call
back the next day to clarify because she
misspoke. People never knew whether they were
coming or going. And she told her staff not to
talk to anyone."
Such was the backdrop in late 2002 when events
were set in motion that led to her resignation.
Though Neuman was in charge of overseeing all
of NCLB, her first love was reading. The Bush
Administration created Reading First, a $1.8
billion initiative for students in grades K-3,
and set aside a smaller pot of money for
Neuman's pet project, Early Reading First,
which focused on pre-school.
That fall, a panel of peer-reviewers had
selected the first slate of 30 school districts
to receive $72 million in Early Reading First
grants. But that slate didn't go out. Neuman
and Bryan successfully argued that the proposed
list did not reflect department priorities and
needed to be re-ordered.
Such moves were neither illegal nor
unprecedented. But one former senior department
official who heard the arguments suspected
Neuman and Bryan wanted to "cherry-pick" the
winners based on "who was naughty and who was
nice," and urged them to be careful. According
to e-mails obtained under the Freedom of
Information Act, Bryan asked her friend Marsha
Sonnenberg, then the executive administrator
for reading in the Ft. Worth, Texas schools, to
come to Washington to help reorder the slate.
But on Nov. 1, Neuman informed Brian that
"Marsha cannot work with us, since she has
applied for an erf grant." Within days,
however, that barrier had vanished. A staffer
told Neuman that "Marsha is coming in to read
all 250 applications."
In an interview, Sonnenberg revealed that Ft.
Worth's application was among the many she
reviewed. While she signed a document
indicating she did not write the application,
that arguably did little to eradicate the
conflict of interest: Sonnenberg examined a
reading grant proposal from a district where
she was in charge of reading, and gave it a
favorable rating ("Well, it was one of the
better ones," she explained matter-of-factly.)
But that lapse paled in comparison to the
ethical minefield department lawyers discovered
soon thereafter: Several of the districts
advanced in the re-ordered slate used Neuman's
Lawyers believed Neuman had violated the ethics
agreement she signed upon coming to the
department. The document required her to recuse
herself from any activity that could have "a
direct and predictable effect on the financial
interests" of several organizations with which
she worked previously Γ’ among them Scholastic,
Inc. Scholastic is the publisher of "Building
Language for Literacy," a pre-school curriculum
co-authored by Neuman.
One former department official, who spoke on
condition of anonymity, said the revelation
panicked the department's leadership. "It was
like 'Oh my God, you're not only moving up
friends, but your own curriculum?'" the
official recalled. "Even if it's the greatest
curriculum in the world, you can't do that when
you're assistant secretary."
Sonnenberg confirmed that she advanced many
districts that used "Building Language for
Literacy," but insists she was given no
warnings against doing that, or privileging Ft.
Worth's application. "Honest to God," she said,
"if there was something wrong with my reviewing
Ft. Worth's application or districts that
wanted to use Susan's work, no one ever told me
Neuman hung up the phone when a reporter sought
comment for this article, and did not respond
to numerous requests sent by e-mail. A
spokeswoman for Scholastic said Neuman
terminated her consulting contract with the
company when she became assistant secretary and
didn't resume her ties until six months after
Since she received no royalties for her work,
Neuman appears to have had no immediate
opportunity to enrich herself through the
arrangement. But it could have benefitted her
indirectly by giving greater visibility to her
curriculum, leading to more consulting
contracts and other financial rewards once she
left office. What is undeniable is that the
episode presented a major PR problem for the
Bush Administration at a time when critics were
already calling his education agenda a
boondoggle for the publishing industry.
Furthermore, because Neuman was a presidential
appointee Γ’ and Bryan, who had longtime Texas
connections to Bush and Spellings, was also
heavily involved Γ’ the incident left the
president uncomfortably exposed.
In a conference call that included senior
education officials and several Bush advisors,
White House attorneys took a hard line. "They
said the White House was very culpable,"
recalled the former official. "They wanted to
have Susan escorted out of the building by
agents of the Federal Protective Service. It
was Rod [Paige] who spoke up for the dignity of
the office and said, 'Do we have to be so
dramatic?'" It was agreed that Neuman would be
asked to resign.
By all accounts, she was reluctant to leave.
Until close to the very end, Neuman insisted
she had done nothing wrong. She claimed she was
just carrying out Bryan's wishes, and accused
department attorneys of not protecting her. The
end came following a phone call from Darv
Winick, a veteran Texas hand whom Bush tapped
as chairman of the National Assessment
Governing Board. "I suggested that there are
times when you hold 'em and times when you fold
'em, and that this might be one of those times
to move on," Winick recalled in an interview.
Neuman resigned on January 13, 2003, a few days
past the first anniversary of the day NCLB was
signed into law.
In many ways, the episode presaged the ethical
storm that would engulf Reading First several
years later. Three inspector general reports
and two congressional investigations found the
larger program may have been influenced by
favoritism, a lack of transparency and a peer
review process that didn't properly screen for
bias. Though both programs are popular with
teachers and have shown anecdotal signs of
success, national studies of their
effectiveness have demonstrated mixed results.
After Neuman left the department, the original,
unaltered Early Reading First grant slate went
ahead according to the original reviewers'
wishes. Bryan left the department three months
after Neuman to join NCLB-architect-turned-
publishing lobbyist Sandy Kress in a lucrative
position at legal giant Akin Gump in Austin,
Texas. She also serves as executive director of
the Laura Bush Foundation for America's
Libraries. She declined to comment for this
Neuman returned to academe, re-committing
herself to the groundbreaking research that
established her reputation. She has yet to
speak publicly about the circumstances
surrounding her resignation, nor has she taken
responsibility for her role in implementing the
Bush policies she now criticizes. Picking up
the Times' theme, if her post-
Administration work amounts to a mea culpa for
her time in government, some observers wish
there had been a little more confession to go
along with that repentance. Given her radical
transformations, some colleagues who have known
her for years say it is difficult to know where
Susan Neuman really stands. "I am uncertain
whether her pre-Bush positions were false but
aimed at getting support in the education
community, or if her Bush positions were false
but aimed at getting administration support,"
said Timothy Shanahan, former president of the
International Reading Association and a
professor at the University of Illinois.
In her post-Bush life, Neuman has chosen to
speak largely through her work. Her new book,
"Changing the Odds for Children at Risk"
repudiates NCLB's central tenet that
disadvantaged children can attain high
achievement through schools alone. "It's hard
for me to criticize her, because she's really
got her game back as a scholar," said
Berkeley's Pearson. "On the other hand, there's
a part of me that feels she needs to do her
penance for what she did to education."
Andrew Brownstein is a freelance education
writer living in Washington, D.C.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES