Philip Rosenfelt has dedicated his more than four-decade legal career to improving the quality of education throughout the country and ensuring equal access to education for all students.
As a young lawyer for the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and now as acting general counsel to the Department of Education, Rosenfelt has been at the forefront of education law to advance the teaching profession and protect the rights of students. In his early days and over the years, he has provided a wide range of legal advice to policymakers across many presidential administrations.
“Phil Rosenfelt is the rare individual who brings to his work a combination of extraordinary talent, creativity, commitment to results that work, dedication, humanity and humor,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “He is a lawyer who focuses on the right thing to do, rather than merely determining what is legal or not.”
Joanne Weiss, Duncan’s chief of staff, said Rosenfelt’s “fingerprints are all over education law and the federal role of education in this country.”
Elizabeth McFadden, a deputy general counsel for ethics, legislative and regulatory service at the department, said Rosenfelt’s job covers a broad range of issues, from substantive and legal matters on elementary and secondary education to legal issues around the operations and internal policies affecting the department.
When Congress failed to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law, Rosenfelt helped develop the legal framework to ensure that schools would continue to receive federal funding while not having to meet some of the “outdated” requirements of the law. In return, they agreed to meet new and more flexible requirements better suited to their circumstances.
“Phil was the mastermind of the legal side of the whole effort,” said Weiss. She said it has resulted in “schools bringing creative new approaches and assuming accountability.”
Throughout his career, Rosenfelt has worked to ensure that all students, regardless of their circumstances, have access to the best education possible. He was instrumental in providing legal and regulatory underpinnings for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that assists students from low income families, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for children with disabilities.
“Phil has been there since these programs were conceived, and he’s helped them become real engines for supporting the needs of low income students and students with disabilities,” said Weiss. “It’s taken these kids out of the back of the room and put them in the center of educators’ minds.”
Rosenfelt also played a pivotal role in the Department of Education’s efforts to help school districts recover from disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and most recently Hurricane Sandy.
When the department was given $97.4 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, Rosenfelt used creative legal strategies to ensure funds could be distributed quickly while requiring strict accountability for 21 separate grant programs. These initiatives included the Race to the Top Fund, which provides competitive grants to states that are creating conditions for education innovation and reform; the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, a grant program to advance educational reforms and save teaching jobs; and the Investing in Innovation Fund, a grant program to close achievement gaps and decrease dropout rates.
In his early years, Rosenfelt was involved in helping implement laws against segregation and injustice in schools.
“One of my first cases involved school desegregation in a poor county in Alabama. Conditions were terrible,” said Rosenfelt. “Within a few months, we saw big changes in a school district that had had separate facilities for decades. Early in my career, I saw how the law can cause very positive changes very quickly, and that always inspired me.”
More recently, Rosenfelt has worked closely with the Department of Justice on landmark litigation before the Supreme Court establishing the basic tenets of accountability in federal grant law, aiding needy private school students while preserving the separation of church and state, and supporting affirmative action policies in university admissions. He also has successfully supported the protection of students from bullying and harassment and the accessibility of materials for students with disabilities.
As the acting general counsel, Rosenfelt is responsible for a team of more than 100 attorneys. Colleagues said his effectiveness is not only due to his encyclopedic knowledge of complex and diverse legal and policy issues and an ability to find creative solutions, but his sense of fairness, balance, and a willingness to listen to different opinions.
“Everyone sees him as honest and straightforward. He doesn’t have his own agenda,” said Joseph Conaty, a senior adviser in the Department of Education’s office of the deputy secretary. “He is trying to do what’s best for kids, education, teachers, schools and parents.”