By Joshua Benton
Tom Luce, the Dallas attorney who has been one of the prime movers in state and national education reform for the last two decades, is stepping down from his federal post for health reasons.
“It has probably been the most rewarding experience of my life,” Mr. Luce, 66, said yesterday. “I didn’t want to step down, but it’s something I need to take care of.”
Mr. Luce had been the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development for the past year. He said he has a pain disorder that requires physical therapy three or four days a week.
“I’ve found Washington be a difficult place to take care of your health,” he said. “I’ve cancelled therapy so many times. The demands are 24/7.”
Mr. Luce is one of a number of Texans who have had substantial sway over federal education policy during the Bush administration. Sandy Kress, the Austin attorney and former Dallas school board president, was a prime architect of the No Child Left Behind law.
Former Houston superintendent Rod Paige served as education secretary in the first Bush term. Current education secretary Margaret Spellings has been a Bush education advisor since his days as governor.
“Tom Luce has spent a lifetime putting kids first, and his service to the Department of Education has been no exception,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
Mr. Luce would be on anyone’s short list of the most influential figures in Texas public education for the past two decades.
“He’s been a giant in education circles,” said Jim Nelson, the former state education commissioner.
Mr. Luce was chief of staff of the state task force, headed by Ross Perot, that studied Texas schools and advocated a package of radical reforms in 1984 – including more money for low-wealth schools, higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, and “no pass, no play,” the policy that limited extracurricular activities to students with passing grades.
Mr. Luce coordinated the team of Perot-hired lobbyists who pushed the reforms through a special session of the Legislature. The bill that resulted, House Bill 72, is now considered the beginning of the modern standards movement in Texas.
His only race for political office came in 1990, when he sought the Republican nomination for governor on a platform that focused primarily on schools.
In 1994, after writing a book on education reform, he launched Just For The Kids, an Austin-based non-profit which aimed to gather and analyze information on what makes some schools work and others fail. It was later merged into the National Center for Educational Accountability, which now analyzes testing and other data for dozens of states and the federal government.
“He’s been a very strong advocate for high standards, not just minimum standards,” said Chrys Dougherty, who is the group’s director of research and has known Mr. Luce since the early 1990s. “He believes all students can learn, not just advantaged ones.”
Mr. Luce said he regrets departing Washington barely a year after Ms. Spellings – an old friend from Texas – picked him for the newly designed federal position, which coordinates the department’s policy-making process. But he said his disorder, which he stressed was not life threatening, forced his hand.
He will return to Dallas on September 1, but will continue to serve as a part-time advisor to Ms. Spellings. He said he will continue to work on integrating school data into the department’s decision-making process.
“Ten years ago, when you talked to state people about data, their eyes glazed over,” he said. “But today you have everybody saying ‘We need data-driven decisions, we need more data on individual students.’ It’s a different world.”
No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of the Bush education agenda, will be up for reauthorization next year, and many expect a fight in Congress over the new law’s contents. But Mr. Luce said he has been pleasantly surprised during his time in Washington at the amount of bipartisan agreement.
“There really is almost total unanimity on the broad pillars of No Child Left Behind,” he said. “People quibble from time to time about the details, but people are behind the pillars.”