HERO OR VILLAIN?
Educator Tapped for Planning Post Finds That Old Foes Have Surfaced
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
For a policy wonk with a rumpled appearance, Hoover Institution scholar Williamson M. Evers has a colorful history. He has helped revamp the Iraqi school curriculum, worked as a Libertarian Party activist, advised both of President Bush's campaigns and led an intellectual drive for stricter curricula, testing and accountability in schools.
All of which makes it hard for Evers to figure out exactly who is behind a whispering campaign on Capitol Hill that appears to be blocking his Senate confirmation as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development at the Education Department. His confirmation has been pending since February.
His list of potential enemies is long. "In the world of education standards, he is either hero or villain, and not a lot in between," said Joanne Jacobs, an influential education blogger and friend of Evers's. "He's probably on a lot of dart boards."
Evers declined to be interviewed, he said, "out of respect for the Senate's advice and consent role."
For her part, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said: "Bill is an accomplished academic with extensive credentials and experience studying and writing about education policy issues. His focus on developing policy that is proven effective by scientifically based research will make him a valuable asset to the Department and students and families across the country. I hope the Senate will move quickly to confirm Bill so he can hit the ground running in this important role."
Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said officials were not aware of any congressional impediments to his confirmation. But close friends confirmed that Evers is frustrated amid rumors of resistance to his nomination and talk that an unknown senator may place a hold on his appointment after a Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions hearing. Several friends and acquaintances have been asked by Evers's camp to call and write to senators to counteract criticism.
One of more than 160 civilian nominees in limbo during lawmakers' August recess -- their names submitted to Congress but not yet approved by Senate committees -- Evers is neither the most controversial nor most well known among them. His case is unusual because he has largely escaped the interest of even liberal activists who might be expected to oppose appointment of a staunch conservative to the department.
The most public critics are taking aim from well outside the Beltway. They mostly include individuals whose encounters with Evers date back the 1990s in California, where he made his name as a back-to-basics advocate of rigid educational standards. Their principal worry: his manners.
"Rude, brusque, overbearing, pushy -- he's basically an intellectual bully," said Erwin Morton, one of several parents in the Palo Alto school district who defended teachers whom Evers and others denounced in1993 for the textbooks they selected and how they taught algebra.
It was concern about the schooling his own children were receiving in that district that moved Evers, a political scientist by training, to turn parent-activist and to focus his scholarly work on education policy. He brought a "traditionalist" approach, in which he rejected local teachers' preoccupation with teaching concepts over facts and their worries about students' self-esteem. That angered the likes of Morton, who describes Evers as "the single most harmful person" to schools in the area because he drove teachers away. He recently wrote to senators expressing his concerns about Evers's appointment.
In 1996, Evers was appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) to a 21-member commission assigned to determine the academic content and standards in California schools. And again his critics focused on his demeanor.
"If he was a child in school, you would think he had attention-deficit disorder," said Delaine Eastin, then California's superintendent of public instruction, the highest-ranking education official. "I'm talking about not letting people talk -- being rude, being unprofessional, thinking that because his voice was loudest he should dominate," she said, adding that she knows several people who experienced Evers's "temperament." Like her, she said they are now briefing influential friends in Washington about his unsuitability for the department's post, but doing so quietly.
Evers's supporters, who include a number of Democrats, say his booming voice and uncompromising commitment to high standards give the misleading impression that he does not listen. They portray his detractors as a vocal minority -- sore losers, angry that Evers stood his ground and won over more senior officials during California's contentious education reforms.
John Mockler, former executive director of California's Board of Education, said Evers is "not exactly the smoothest guy," but has an "intellectual commitment to quality-based standards" in schools. He said he is not surprised that Evers's former opponents remain bitter even 10 years later and are anxious to prevent his confirmation. "That's how politics is," he said. "People still remember those days."
Evers "was always focused basically on the bottom line, which is student achievement," said Leon Beauchman, who served on the Santa Clara County board of education with Evers, adding that the Hoover fellow was always willing to "shake up the status quo." "He is opinionated, and very direct and [lets] you know exactly how he feels about the issues . . . [but] the relationships certainly were not adversarial."