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Tom Luna: The Missing Years

Four years have passed since Tom Luna became the only statewide Republican candidate in Idaho to lose in November. His chances for the same office, superintendent of public instruction, look good this time: He has the odds to win the Republican nomination (he was unopposed for it last time), and probably throws the Democratic nominee into presumptive underdog status. All this owes something to early planning, good organization and solid campaign skills, which were not bad in 2002. It seems to owe little to the four years in between, during most of which Luna was a high-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Education.

Tom LunaThat piece of his track record isn’t ignored, exactly. It’s appropriately referenced on his resume, and mentioned in passing. But it’s hardly the focus and highlight you might expect. In running for the top education job in Idaho, his years on the Nampa School Board really aren’t an especially great recommendation, or his work on some state advisory committees.

Luna was a Bush Administration official from early in 2003 into 2005, and one online resume lists him as senior advisor to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, director of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities (2003-04) but primarily, apparently, he was executive director of the U.S. Rural Education Task Force. One might expect Luna to speak at length about these experiences; instead, they tend to get perfunctory mentions. Why?

Could it be because there’s not much to tell? Or because the telling might make for some uncomfortable juxtapositions?

Try Googling “U.S. Rural Education Task Force” and the sole return you’ll get is the current Luna resume posted on the Idaho Public Television site, noted above. That’s a little stunning. Try expanding the search, running it in various directions and focusing on the Department of Education, and you’ll not get much more.

There was work to be done in this area. In one report, the Government Accounting Office concluded that “Rural districts faced some challenges in meeting NCLBA provisions to a greater extent than nonrural districts. For example, rural district officials were more likely than nonrural district officials to report challenges presented by a large enrollment of economically disadvantaged students who may live in communities lacking resources such as libraries. Rural districts also identified small school size and geographic isolation as greatly affecting their ability to implement NCLBA. Rural officials we interviewed said that limited access to teacher training facilities and Internet line maintenance difficulties impeded NCLBA implementation efforts.”

As director of the task force, Luna evidently attended a number of education meetings and conferences around the country, such as one in Billings in March 2004 and another in Morehead, Kentucky. And he evidently convened at least one conference.

Apart from speaking at conferences, what was Luna doing in his couple of years in the Bush Administration? Hard to tell; it would be a good question to ask on the campaign trail. It’s been hard to tell even by those following rural education policy. Michael Arnold, a Coloradoan who has done just that, wrote in 2005 in his rural ed blog:

I’ve heard rumors of a rural education task force but have never seen anything from it. I did a search of the department’s website to get some information.

First I found mention of it in a Department of Education press release from April 2, 2003. As part of another press conference, Secretary Rod Paige announced the “formation of a high-level task force within the Department to help identify challenges faced by states and school districts and to work with the caucus on finding solutions.”

Another mention of the rural education task force is on a page from the Office of the Deputy Secretary. It’s essentially the same information but does add that “the efforts of the task force will include the challenges and opportunities facing rural education and the promising prospects made available through the effective use of state-of-the-art technology.”

The one accomplishment I can find is a virtual town-hall meeting on how rural schools can use technology to meet the requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act. Otherwise it seems that the principle activity of the rural education task force is to ask rural parents, educators and citizens to tell them about the challenges facing rural schools.

Not finding much information, I contacted the department to find out how I could learn more about the task force’s work. I was referred to the web page from the Office of Deputy Secretary that I had already found.

It’s been almost two years and the only tangible thing the Rural Education Task Force has accomplished is a virtual town hall meeting. The purpose of a task force is to accomplish a task! What are these guys doing? If you know, send me an email.

Oddly, the press release Arnold cites here doesn’t mention Luna, but referring mainly to a congressional caucus and adding, “He asked Deputy Secretary Bill Hansen, a native of Idaho, to chair the task force.” (Lunqa was executive director.)

One thing the task force apparently was not doing was questioning No child Left Behind – that has been a Bush Administration cornerstone since 2001. The reference to the virtual town hall appears in a Government Accounting Office review of the Department of Education’s rural and small-school efforts. (Thanks here too to one of our readers, who pointed this out.) At one point it paraphrases a statement by the Rural Task Force director, presumably Tom Luna:

Since April 2003, Education has focused more efforts on rural education issues. At that time, Education established a Rural Education Task Force to coordinate and focus rural education efforts within the department and, according to the Executive Director of the task force, to bring together senior level personnel to identify rural issues and solutions. According to the information provided by the Executive Director, the task force has met with the Congressional Rural Caucus and several national education organizations. The task force also organized a virtual town hall meeting, hosted by the Secretary of Education, on how rural communities are using technology to meet the goals of NCLBA. The event was a live webcast to allow school officials from across the country to learn more about how their colleagues are using technology to achieve the goals and meet the requirements of NCLBA. The Executive Director also indicated that the task force contributed to developing the new flexibilities for rural states that addressed some of their challenges, such as those related to qualifications for teachers of multiple subjects. He said he believed that rural states and districts currently had all the flexibilities that they needed to implement NCLBA. [Emphasis added.] The Executive Director added, however, that discussion would continue on whether there is any other work for the taskforce to do in assisting rural states and districts.

At the Ketucky conference in 2003, “NCLB, Luna said, is based on four principles: accountability, local control of federal education funding, funding what works, and increasing parental choice when schools fail to deliver acceptable results. He cited historical evidence that the kinds of accountability mechanisms in place at state levels tend to shape local educational institutions. . . . Today’s challenge, Luna continued, is to reward high academic achievement and penalize low achievement.”

The most recent word on the rural task force appears to be this in a press release from the Department of Education, dated December 2005 – some months after Luna had left. (There appear to be no Department of Education press releases on record referring to Luna at all, save for one noting his precence at the Montana conference.) It referred to the task force as an adjunct to a new Center for Rural Education to be based in Arizona: “Beto Gonzalez, acting assistant secretary for the Education Department’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education, made the announcement in remarks to a national meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Tucson, Ariz. Gonzalez also chairs the department’s Rural Education Task Force, which met this week in Washington to discuss efforts to promote excellence in rural education through the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Skip to now, the Luna campaign web site, and an April 23 news item on it, “Luna: The right choice to advocate NCLB changes.” Here’s candidate Luna, mark 2006:

Everyone talks about the need to fix NCLB. I’m the only candidate who was tasked by the Bush administration to make the law better. As a senior education adviser, I served as executive director of the U.S. Rural Education Taskforce. My job was to identify areas of the law that were not working and to suggest changes. Our taskforce convinced Congress to add more flexibility to the law.

There is still much to be done. Idaho’s schoolchildren deserve a federal education law that recognizes the differences between schools in Nampa and Rupert, between schools in Riggins and Meridian.

The next generation of NCLB must be adequately funded and should continue to emphasize accountability, allowing parents everywhere to know how well their children – and their schools – are performing. Parents and school boards should be equipped with the tools to make improvements. Broader local control must be the basis of any law revision. Decisions are best made in our communities, not in Boise or Washington, D.C.

Finally, school choice must continue to be emphasized. Parents must have options if a school is not meeting their child’s needs. We must not force children to stay in an educational environment were they are not learning.

The pieces don’t seem to fit together very well. Maybe they can be made to fit, but at the moment Idahoans interested in the direction their state’s education will take in the next few years have some questions to ask.

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