Partnership honors protector of student, teachers’ rights

Over a four-decade career in federal service, Philip Rosenfelt, acting general counsel at the Department of Education, has been at the forefront of education law, advancing the teaching profession and protecting students’ rights.

“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 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “He is a lawyer who focuses on the right thing to do, rather than merely determining what is legal or not.”

Rosenfelt helped orchestrate disaster response for schools in the path of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and helped to set up a legal framework that allowed schools to continue receiving federal funding after Congress failed to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, even if the schools failed to meet some of the law’s “outdated” requirements.

“Phil was the mastermind of the legal side of the whole effort,” said Joanne Weiss, Duncan’s chief of staff.


For his long career of service, the Partnership for Public Service named Rosenfelt as a finalist for the 2013 Service to America Medal in the Career Achievement category. The medal honors a federal employee who has made significant contributions to the public throughout his or her career in public service.

Rosenfelt was recently interviewed on In Depth with Francis Rose. He also answered the following questions about himself and his career in the federal government.

Philip Rosenfelt, acting general counsel, Department of Education
What three words best describe your leadership philosophy?
One set of three words to describe my leadership philosophy is “lead by example.” But to describe it in more descriptive terms, I would use the following three words: “listen,” “innovate,” and “results.”

“Listen” — Show your commitment to teamwork and the high quality of the work to be done by being a very good listener, and being open to new ideas. Hear what your clients and colleagues (and anyone asking you for advice) are saying, and not just what you want to hear. Get out of your own comfort zone to listen and think well. Be mindful and respectful of what your clients and colleagues want to accomplish.

“Innovate” — Use the best of old and new ideas that lead to innovation. Be agile, creative and knowledgeable about the subject matter while keeping the law, equity and fairness in mind to solve problems effectively.

Get “Results” — Be fair and equitable and precise in providing answers that do the best that can be done for your clients and customers, and always keep in mind that we are working for the high quality education of all students, our ultimate clients, along with the taxpayers. Explain clearly how you reached your results so that the results can be effectively implemented. And use appropriate timing to get the best results. Good timing is important for humor and for giving helpful answers. Get back to people at the proper time (“there is a time for every purpose …”). Use time wisely and productively, and prioritize so you can get all the things done that you need to (know when you have to rush, and when you have to be more deliberate). With these factors in mind, you will maximize your results

What’s the best piece of advice (or words of wisdom) you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
Work on issues that you love and on which you can make a difference while you serve the public well. My father did that and he loved going to work every day into his 94th year.

Who are your biggest role models and why?
My father was a big role model for me for loving his work into the 94th year; Family, friends and work made him smile every day.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were another role model that inspired me as a child and beyond, as the classic underdog that broke through the “color barrier” to attack stereotypes, and support equity and the underdog, and all those who needed support. They were ahead of their time fighting inequity and prejudice, and they helped pave the way for further reforms to foster equality.

My work for the Department on the U.S Holocaust Museum Council has also been an inspiration for me, giving me a great foundation for seeing how the law and education can be used for good and evil.

What’s the last thing you read and what’s next on your reading list?
The last books I read were In the “Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson and “You’ll Be Okay, My Life with Jack Kerouac” by Edie Kerouac-Parker

The next things I am planning to read are “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers, “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese, “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” by Alex Ross, as I compare it to the music of the new millennium, and “Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic” by Jim DeRotatis.

I like to read books in odd groupings to mix and mash them together to jump back and forth through the various realities and experiences, allowing me to experience the literature in many different ways from a number of perspectives.

I am a voracious reader and I will also be reading many newspapers and magazines on and off the Internet and many law, news, music, technology, sports and business blogs from around the world.

What’s your favorite bureaucratic phrase?
I do not have a favorite phrase, but I try to collect bureaucratic phrases for an amateur (part-humorous) study I am doing comparing the “bureaucratise” of 20 years ago to today, to see what it says about how we carry out the business of government differently. It might be called “Unpacking, Commingling and Finalizing the Truth: From Interface to Outreach: It is What It Is.” The use of language in government has always been interesting to me. We cannot take it too seriously.

The Career Achievement Medal is just one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) presented annually by the Partnership for Public Service. View a gallery of all the Sammies nominees here.