Budget proposal spurs agency chief to seek early retirement

By Brian Friel, National Journal

President Bush issued his budget proposal on Feb. 7. The head of the largest federal job-training program for people with disabilities quit on Feb. 8.

Joanne Wilson -- head of the $2.7 billion-a-year Rehabilitation Services Administration at the Education Department -- left quietly. She sent out a standard-issue "the-time-has-come" resignation letter, wrapped up loose ends at the office, and packed her things to move back to Louisiana.

Among advocates for the disabled, rumors percolated that Wilson had resigned in protest, but she kept her mouth shut until after her resignation became official on March 1.

In her first interview since resigning, Wilson told National Journal on March 8: "The administration made a decision on the direction that the RSA was going to go and, in my heart, I could not follow the administration's lead." Wilson, who is blind and who was one of the highest-ranking administration officials with a disability, said, "This direction could set people with disabilities back 50 years."

Wilson's resignation comes as advocates for the disabled decry the Bush administration's plans for the RSA, which helps over 213,000 people a year get jobs. In its 2006 budget, the administration proposed allowing governors to merge the RSA's services with eight other federally funded job-training programs. In addition, the Education Department is planning to close the RSA's regional offices, halve the agency's 120-person workforce, and demote the RSA commissioner's job from one that needs Senate confirmation. "I think all of these are pieces of the puzzle," Wilson said. "It is a move to diminish the role of rehabilitation and the RSA in this country."

Bush administration officials say people with disabilities would be better served by a more integrated job system. "It is unfortunate that some vocational-rehabilitation stakeholders are concerned about maintaining a separate system, a separate infrastructure, and separate staff -- as opposed to looking at the issue of employment outcomes for the clients and customers of the system," said Assistant Secretary of Labor Emily Stover DeRocco.

The Senate confirmed Bush's appointment of Wilson, former director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, in July 2001. Over the past two years, she said, she had been increasingly marginalized by her superiors at the department. "I got a clear message that my philosophy on what was needed for people with disabilities, and the administration's philosophy, were going in opposite directions," she said.

Wilson's main concern is the consolidation proposal. The RSA is the largest of the nine federal funding streams that could be combined into a single job-training program -- it is more than twice as large, for example, as the $1.3 billion Labor Department program for workers who lose their jobs because of layoffs or plant closures. Wilson contends that disabled people sometimes require lengthy and expensive job-training services. Some blind people, for example, need to learn how to use a cane and how to use public transportation before they can begin job hunting.

General training programs are so focused on quickly generating high numbers of re-employed people that states would likely turn disabled people away or shuffle them to the end of the line, advocates say. "People with disabilities would undoubtedly get the short end of the stick," said Carl Suter, executive director of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.

DeRocco argues that combining the programs would better connect people with disabilities to employers, who often don't look to rehabilitation programs for workers. "The intention is not to eliminate, it is to consolidate," DeRocco said. "Specialists would be available to provide specialized services for people who need them."

James Gashel, a lobbyist for the National Federation of the Blind, said that Congress is unlikely to go along with the administration's proposal this year. The House on March 2 passed a job-training reauthorization bill that leaves the RSA alone. But advocates assert that the Education Department is already making changes that weaken the RSA, perhaps paving the way for consolidating the program in the future. Department officials deny that charge.

On March 8, Wilson's former boss, Assistant Secretary John Hager, told RSA staff in an e-mail that the department will close the RSA's 10 regional offices by the end of September, cutting the workforce in half. The downsizing "will result in greater degrees of effectiveness and efficiencies in program administration and customer focus,"

Hager wrote. In an interview, Hager said that the move would free up $7 million for direct services. Disabled groups charge that the closures would reduce states' accountability for spending federal funds, and they say they will ask Congress to block the move. "If there isn't somebody monitoring what is going on, there is the temptation to divert funds away from the people with the most disabilities to the easier cases," Suter said.

The administration is also pushing Congress to downgrade the position of RSA chief from one that requires Senate confirmation. Department officials say the line of authority would be clearer if the appointment were made directly by the RSA commissioner's boss -- a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary. Wilson said the move would be a "devaluing" of people with disabilities.

"We're trying to improve and make a better RSA," Hager said.

Now that Wilson has left the department, she plans to fight the changes. "Things are starting to be dismantled in rehabilitation," she said. "I'm so upset, I wake up at night over it."