With the rallying cry of "Leadership now!" - a campaign slogan he chuckles about today - Eugene W. Hickok Jr. won his bid to become president of the junior class at the Collegiate School in 1966. Thirty-four years since that political victory, Hickok could be poised to manage something a little weightier than throwing a prom for the senior class. There's a chance he may be called to oversee the reform of America's education system. Supporters say that Hickok, who as Pennsylvania's secretary of education now runs 3,200 schools, is one of the most take-charge education secretaries in the country. He's expected to be on the short list for U.S. secretary of education in a George W. Bush Cabinet. But Hickok, 50, would rather not focus on all that. There is work to do. He sits, legs crossed, his right foot jerking up and down, near the end of a two-hour interview in his office in the state capital. That foot shakes almost uncontrollably, pulsing high-voltage energy, betraying a bit of impatience, too. Hickok - schooled in Virginia from kindergarten in Virginia Beach to graduate school at the University of Virginia has oozed energy in his five years as Pennsylvania's secretary of education. Like most states, Pennsylvania has ramped up its curriculum and added tests to gauge the success of education reforms. But, unlike Virginia officials' single-minded focus on the Standards of Learning, Hickok has pushed through an array of controversial initiatives: authority for the state to take over low-performing districts; random testing of teachers; a required average of at least B- for education majors. "I'm very impressed and admiring of what he and [Gov.] Tom Ridge have done," says Chester E. Finn Jr., a Reagan-era assistant secretary of education and now senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank. "They're not just show horses who announce a reform idea and skate onto something else. They seem to stick to it." But Hickok is impatient, too. Impatient with mushy education-speak - "I stay away from words such as rubric or curriculum framework" - which blocks public understanding of education. He is impatient with the status quo, particularly teachers unions, which he says thwarted his plan for state vouchers. "I think it's essential to get away from the notion that public education is the province of the education establishment," he says. "We need to be willing to put all the options out there." Unions also have sued in Pennsylvania to block approved programs, including a takeover plan and an "alternative certification" program to attract new teachers. If Hickok has taken on a much more ambitious agenda than Virginia's leaders, he also has taken a far less-inviting stance to education groups, who feel shut out of most major decisions. "A lot of people are beginning to feel that the administration would like to marginalize them," says John W. Butzow, the education dean at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "I don't see him as an advocate; I see him more as an adversary of public education." No apologies from Hickok. "If your goal is to get all the stakeholders to the table to agree on something, the chance of change is very slim," he says. "Leadership charts a vision and brings people to it." The son of a construction supervisor, Hickok bounced from state to state, landing in Virginia Beach, where he attended kindergarten. The next year, his family moved to Henrico County. He attended Tuckahoe Elementary School before Maybeury was built. Then he entered Tuckahoe Junior High School before transferring to the Collegiate School in the seventh grade. "All my memories began at Collegiate," Hickok says. Aside from his student government experience, there was Katharine Pauley, whom he met in the spring of his senior year. Today, Katharine is his wife. There are other local ties that keep Hickok's eyes on Richmond. His in-laws live here, including Stan Pauley, president of the Carpenter Co. And Hickok's daughter, also named Katharine, is a senior at the University of Richmond. As for his own college days, Hickok stayed in Virginia. His bachelor's degree in government is from Hampden-Sydney College, where he says he had "great teachers who made it difficult to be comfortable." He got his master's degree in public administration and a doctorate in government from U.Va. Hickok's first job was as financial aid director at Hampden-Sydney. He spent a year as special assistant in the U.S. Department of Justice, helping win the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. In 1980, he joined Dickinson College as a political science professor, trying to make his students "uncomfortable in a positive sense." In 1995, he was named Pennsylvania's secretary of education. Change has been dramatic, Finn says, because of Hickok's status as an outsider. "In the K-to-12 world," Finn says, "he came in from deep center field, from higher ed, without having bought into the assumptions and cynicism that people in the K-through-12 system end up embracing." Hickok also has been an outsider among other states' education leaders. He is chairman of the Education Leaders Council, a breakaway coalition of about 10 state secretaries that pushes for more local oversight of federal education dollars and more options for parents. Virginia's secretary of education, Wilbert Bryant, is a member. He calls Hickok an "outstanding leader," and praises his campaign for less federal control. But in style and philosophy, they differ. Hickok eagerly speaks before congressional panels and education conferences. This year, he spoke about education for the Bush campaign at stops in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Bryant is lower-key, formal, reluctant to get close to controversy. Bryant is uncomfortable even talking about vouchers: "We have not spent any time discussing vouchers. We have put our major concentration on fully implementing the Standards of Learning." And Bryant sees inclusiveness as vital. Shortly after taking office, Bryant says he met with the president of the Virginia Education Association "to let her know I wanted to work with them . . . .If we don't get buy-in from the education organizations and the community at large, all we do at the state level is for naught." Hickok's office, advertising his penchant for plain-speak, features a "jargon jar." Staffers pay $ 1 if they slip into educationese. Hickok refuses to use "classroom module" for 'desk." And he won't touch "MAWA" - a "mutually agreed-upon written arrangement" between two agencies. Next year, he expects to release a "knock-your-socks-off" audit that he promises will have straight answers to questions about school funding and student achievement. His prediction: Some schools will show "really outstanding performance for little money," and others will have "lousy performance with lots of money." "You need to be willing to ask very tough questions and deal with the answers," says Hickok. Assistant Editor Jason Roop contributed to this story.
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