Budget, Timing, and a Big Idea: The Reform Trifecta
The central purpose of the Mike Kirst Biography Project is to produce a lively portrait of an effective educational reformer who remains generally unknown to those most actively engaged in the trenches of American education—teachers, principals, and district leaders.2
Jack Jennings, staff director and general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor for nearly three decades (1967–94), and, more recently, the President and CEO of the Center of Education Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, captures challenges and lessons learned from more than a half-century of education reforms in his new book, Fatigued By School Reform.
During a recent national webinar prompted by the book’s publication, he was asked if he felt that any states were leading the way to advance the types of reforms he feels hold merit. He points to California, and in particular to Mike Kirst, in his reply. Let’s listen in:
Audio Clip 1: Jack Jennings – “California is a Leader in Changing Schools” 3
In contrast to what many consider to be failed efforts to improve American schools over most of Jennings’ professional lifetime, he now sees California as “a leader in changing schools,” with former Jerry Brown, as governor, relying on Mike’s expertise to devise a fairer way to distribute education money and ensure that “local people would have more of a chance to decide how the money is to be used: that is by moving more decision-making down to the local level.”
In this installment about Mike Kirst’s first steps in his professional career (which he names “The Great Society” stage), we see how his early years in Washington laid the foundation for later policy directions and strategies identified by Jack Jennings and others as holding promise for effectively changing schools.
This installment, “A Young Dr. Kirst Goes to Washington: Budget, Timing, and a Big Idea—The Reform Trifecta,” elaborates the unfolding of America’s major K–12 education policy efforts and the leaders who crafted them.
Mike’s First Job Interview
You may recall, in Installment 7, Mike’s declaration that he had become “hooked on Washington” after a summer internship in D.C. after his junior year at Dartmouth and how later, during his doctoral studies at Harvard, he decided he “wanted to go into public service.” (Installment 8)
We start this installment by hearing Mike relate the advice he received from the Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Public Administration about launching his public service career.
Audio Clip 2: Harvard Dean of Public Administration’s Career Advice to Mike 4
“Go to the Bureau of the Budget” was the simple, direct advice Dean Don Price gave Mike as the best way to start a career, with an advanced Harvard degree in political economy and government.
Mike continues, “So they interviewed me and they said, ‘You look good. We have openings in veterans, water pollution, and K–12 education. You can have any of those three.”
Mike’s choice (K–12 education) set in motion the major thrust of his subsequent teaching, research, and public policy career.
Note also the characteristics sought by the Bureau of the Budget—general training but not a deep background in a specific policy field, so as to maintain analytical impartiality and not, as Mike says, to “become too much of a pro-education person.” Sixty years later, Governor Brown echoed that, as well. Brown considered Mike a man of “inquiry” rather than “advocacy” and trusted his insights and advice because of that. (To hear Brown speak further on these points, click on this link to the second installment of this series.)
Mike felt confident at that first interview with Dean Price’s buddy for the Bureau of the Budget education job:
Audio Clip 3: Dean Price Sets Up Interview at Budget Bureau for Mike 5
Mike’s “Grand Tour” Through Washington
From Mike’s vita, we learn of his five positions during this five-year “grand tour” through D.C.:
- Budget Examiner, U.S. Bureau of the Budget (Office of Education), 1964–65
- Executive Assistant to the Director Of Title 1 (ESEA), USA Office of Education, 1965-1966
- Associate Director, President’s Commission on White House Fellows and National Advisory Council on Education of Disadvantaged Children (NACEDC), Washington, D.C., 1966
- Director, Program Planning and Evaluation, Bureau of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Office of Education, Washington, D.C., 1967
- Staff Director, U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty, Washington, D.C., 1968–69.
Here is his thumbnail sketch of those years (in less than a minute) at an invited presentation 6 at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Education Research Association where he was honored with the organization’s 2017 Distinguished Public Service Award. (Click the center arrow to listen)
Hence, we unpack them in this installment, intuiting how each may have added to the body of expertise he tapped in future years.
The timing of Mike’s arrival in D.C. was quite fortuitous. Even during his interview for the budget position that Mike describes above, Dean Price’s contact at the budget bureau, Velma 7, had noted, “Well, that’s good (the choice of K–12 education over water pollution and veterans affairs) because we have this task force chaired by John W. Gardner, planning this new act by President Lyndon Johnson.”
Mike was soon to understand that he would be advising President Johnson within a year or so of his taking office on the budget and oversight of the act’s major component, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, providing unprecedented funding and involvement in the vast majority of America’s approximately 16,000 school districts at the time.
Prior to Mike’s arrival in D.C., Mr. Gardner, who was the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York from 1955–65, became known as “one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes figures in education.” 8
President Johnson started looking for ideas that would eventually become the blueprint for many aspects of his Great Society reforms. He asked John Gardner to chair a Task Force to develop ideas for education.9
Mike explains the reason for this reputation in the clip below (courtesy of the John W. Gardner Legacy Oral History Project) in his important commentary about:
Audio Clip 4: The Genesis of a New Federal Role in Education – A Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Gardner Task Force [Note in the transcript for this clip Emerson Elliott’s commentary.]
“Grand Tour”: Year One (1964-65) as Budget Examiner – “Boy, Were We Active…It Was Really Something!”
As a budget examiner in the Bureau of the Budget, Mike worked within the division of Education, Manpower and Science (EMS) overseeing aspects of the budget for the Office of Education.10 Mike shared an office with another examiner, Emerson Elliott, on the fourth floor of the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House grounds. Mike liked that they could see directly into the solarium of the President’s home, noting that it was “pretty cool for being 25” [years old]. 11
In speaking of his first position as a budget examiner, Mike emphasizes how intimate the budget shop was in 1964, compared to today, stating for example that there was only one person between him and the director (first Kermit Gordon and then Charles Schultz, adding that “And, boy, were we active. It was really something.”
Emerson had begun his federal service in 1957 as a career professional staffer for President Eisenhower and was assigned to be the Budget Examiner for Education in 1960.
In an early interview, Emerson notes another important contrast between 1964 and today: “[a]t the time, the federal government was hardly doing anything in education, [except] for a program called Impact Aid…for children of [those] who worked on military bases…[and] a post-Sputnik education program…that provided several fellowships and grants.” 12
Mike characterized his and Emerson’s relationship this way: “At the Budget Office my title was ‘Budget Examiner’ and I believe that was his as well. He would always say he wasn’t above me in the hierarchy, but I didn’t know anything, and he had been there [quite] a long time. So that’s not true.” 13
(Mike and Emerson’s paths were to cross later, notably once during both of their work on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card.”)14
Contacted recently for observations about Mike, Emerson preferred to speak about Mike more broadly than just his experiences in those early days of the Johnson administration. Let’s listen in:
Audio Clip 5: Emerson Elliott About Mike’s Strong Reputation and Approachable Style15
In terms of job duties at the time, Mike’s budget review and oversight during this first year in D.C. focused on K–12 education while Emerson’s was primarily on post-secondary federal programs, but the two worked in tandem largely in an attempt to keep up with the sweeping changes that were being recommended by the Gardner Task Force.
At roughly the time of Mike’s arrival in Washington, members of the Gardner group had tasked the Budget Bureau to develop simulations and related financial analyses for advising President Johnson on how much funding he should request from Congress for this new program.
This was Mike’s first assignment. He was put in charge of developing analyses and advising President Lyndon B. Johnson about how large a budget he should propose to Congress for what was to become by far the largest federal education program for K–12 education, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
With help from Emerson and others, Mike prepared a memo to the President with the cost estimates and justifications and hand-delivered them to the Oval Office. He describes his path from the Old Executive Office Building: he went down to the basement and walked through the underground tunnel that connects to the West Wing. The President’s secretary was waiting for Mike and said the President was waiting for the document. Let’s listen as he relates this incident in his Autobiographical Reflections for the Stanford Emeriti Oral History Project in 2014:
Audio Clip 6: “Walking the Tunnel – Framing LBJ’s Billion-Dollar K–12 Decision”
He witnessed firsthand how important it is to combine analytics and expertise with good optics, noting that President Johnson, a former second-grade teacher from Stonewall, Texas, “very much wanted a massive new federal education program.” The President got that program, and signed the legislation in the second-grade classroom where he had taught, accompanied by his former second-grade teacher. These moments, of course, stick with Mike and encapsulate for him the three key elements in formulating successful education reform in America: budget, timing, and a big idea.
“Grand Tour” Year 2 (1965-1966): Executive Assistant to the Director of Title I, ESEA
While Mike has told the stories of the previous two clips in several venues, and with a certain relish, and while he certainly found his work at the Budget Bureau to be “really interesting,” as his first year in D.C. wore on, he became “more interested in being closer to programs…wanted to really see what it was like for government programs to go out the door and what happened when they got to schools.”16
As it happened, John Hughes, the first director of the Title I program in the (then) U.S. Office of Education, was looking for some help with this program with a notably larger budget than any previous K-12 education program, operated through the country’s vast array of state departments of education, and with regulations affecting the vast majority of the nation’s school districts.
Almost immediately upon Title I’s passage, Mr. Hughes turned to Mike. He designated Mike as his Special Assistant, with a variety of responsibilities, but with the major job of leading in the development of the first set of Title I regulations. Mike reports that he and Hughes worked well together on this monumental task, with Mike considering Hughes to be not only “my boss, but my mentor.” 17
“Grand Tour” Year Three (1966): Dual Leadership Roles in Johnson’s White House
One of the ideas Gardner had been mulling over since 1957 was eventually established by an Executive Order in1964: the White House Fellows program.18 Mike had met Thomas W. Carr, its first director, who also served as director of the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children (NACEDC) to guide the President and the Executive Branch on start-up of the Title I program.
Mr. Carr needed someone who had some expertise to assist him with both the fellows and the NACEDC. As Mike tells the story, Mr. Carr found Mike to be “about the only person around who had expertise in both.” 19
The White House Fellows program was established “to provide gifted and highly motivated young Americans with some firsthand experience in the process of governing the Nation and a sense of personal involvement in the leadership of society.” This program embodied other elements of successful reform already germinating for Mike—the importance of building networks and coalitions.
The fellows were to spend a year working full-time as paid assistants to senior White House staff, cabinet secretaries, and other top-ranking government officials as well as participate in educational activities such as roundtable discussions and other forums with leaders from the private and public sectors.
Mike headed this education component of the Fellows program on behalf of Carr for two years, working closely with HEW Secretary Gardner and other senior government officials. For instance, he organized an early fellows trip to meet New York’s Mayor Lindsay and the editorial staff of The New York Times. He also was responsible for the fellows to meet with a Chicago gang, the Blackstone Rangers, because of their involvement with a minister heading a youth program. The latter drew “a lot of criticism,” according to Mike after a Chicago newspaper carried a piece titled “White House Fellows Meet the Blackstone Rangers.”
President Johnson hosted several functions for the White House fellows each year and enjoyed mixing with them. Let’s listen to Mike’s recollection of one particular White House event and the beginning of the relationship between LBJ and the (later famous) biographer Doris Kearns.
Audio Clip 7: White House Fellows – “Match-Maker Mike” for LBJ and Doris Kearns 20
Mike enjoyed his work with the Gardner-inspired White House Fellows and has found his Title I experiences both with its congressionally-mandated advisory council in 1966 as well as this following year at the Director of the Program Planning and Evaluation at the Bureau of Elementary and Secondary Education to be invaluable throughout his career.
Nevertheless, already by 1967, with President Johnson becoming increasingly mired in an unpopular Vietnam War effort and his focus no longer centered as much on Great Society programs, Mike’s thoughts turned increasingly to his long-standing interest in the congressional side of government.
A Pennsylvania native with experience on Democratic-led education reform efforts, Mike explored the possibility of a staff position with Senator Joseph S. Clark (D – Pennsylvania). He then learned that a staffer for the committee that Clark chaired—the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty—might be leaving. Mike saw the opportunity as a particularly good match substantively, politically, and professionally.
“Grand Tour” Years 4 and 5 (1968–69): Staff Director – U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty
Mike was able to arrange an interview with the top aide leading this potential search, who responded immediately that he’d “feel a lot better with [your] resume in my desk drawer.” The subcommittee’s staff director did indeed depart, and Mike “was immediately handed the job of running this subcommittee.”
Mike notes that he later found this early career experience to be quite helpful in the work he did for his most recent book, Higher Education and the Silicon Valley: Connected But Conflicted.
As staff director for the subcommittee, Mike was in charge of all of the legislation that came through it. He specifically recalls working with Senator McGovern, who chaired a special committee on hunger. Not only did he work on developing areas of expertise in the substantive issues of manpower training, poverty, and hunger programs, but he also learned important tactics for successful introduction and passage of legislation, such as using the “unanimous consent” option…leading him to say, “I was really getting quite good with those techniques.”
Mike also notes that Clark and his staff were “very careful to keep me out of the campaign” for re-election. (Mike demurs though that “I wanted to learn about politics and how you get elected. I was thinking maybe I’ll go into that at some point.”) In the end, Mike saw this restriction as somewhat of a positive because with so many other staff on the campaign trail, he “became even more important in the office with the legislation.”
In listening to this next clip in which Mike reviews his major responsibilities for the subcommittee, we can hear parallels with his role as president of the California State Board of Education for Governor Brown as well as experiences he brought to his copious public policy publications. (See his 26-page resume for details.)
Audio Clip 8: Legislative Work for U.S. Senate Prepares Mike as a Reformer In California 21
Mike particularly relishes special times in those days when “the staff people went on the [Senate] floor when Senator Clark did his speeches on a bill…I used to sit next to him. There was a little chair and we discussed what was going on on the floor with the bills. It was fabulous.” 22
Even though this stage of his “grand tour” through D.C. came to an end sooner than Mike had hoped or anticipated, even in defeat, he gleaned an important political lesson told to him by Senator Clark:
Audio Clip 9: A Departing “Barons and Vassals” Lesson about Working on the Hill 23
President Johnson handing Mike Kirst official signature pens
for War on Poverty bills, originating in the Senate Subcommittee
on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. 24
When Diana Diamond of the Stanford Faculty Oral History Project asked him in 2013 how he felt about his time in Washington, this was Mike’s response:
Audio Clip 10: Mike’s “Great Society Era” – Closing Remarks
Next Installment: Key Personal Developments in Mike’s Early Years…and Beyond
We’ll hear in the next installment of Conversations With and About Mike about key personal developments in Mike’s college and D.C. years, including his first marriage upon graduation from Dartmouth; the birth of his two children, Mike (aka Chip) and Anne, in D.C.; his second marriage in and beyond his early years at Stanford; and, the centrality of his multifaceted relationship with John Gardner over more than a half-century.