Secretarial Pool

November 01, 2000 8 min read

For nearly eight years—longer than any previous U.S. secretary of education—Richard Riley has run the $43 billion, 5,000-employee federal agency that dispenses cash, regulations, and advice to the nation’s public schools. Sometime after the November elections, Riley, a 67-year-old grandfather of 10, will leave office for a distinguished career as education’s elder statesman.

Who will succeed him?

We surveyed Washington, D.C., insiders and came up with this pool of potential education chiefs for George W. Bush and Al Gore. The list includes seven political heavyweights yet only one educator. That’s not surprising when you consider that the two most recent secretaries—Riley of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee—were former governors. A new presidential administration, it appears, will mean politics as usual in the U.S. Department of Education.

Republicans | Democrats


John Engler
Governor of Michigan

Vitals: 52 years old. Married with three children. Is serving his third term as governor.

Credentials: A larger-than-life veteran of Michigan politics who has championed many of Bush’s core issues, including higher standards and accountability, local control, and charter schools. In the early 1990s, Engler won voter approval of a bold plan to cut property taxes and boost the state sales tax—a move that reduced the gap in spending between rich and poor districts, something Bush tried but failed to do in Texas. An early supporter of Bush’s campaign, Engler has remained a confidant even though he wasn’t able to deliver Michigan for the Texan in the Republican primary.

Voucher Trouble: Engler is tangled in a political fight at home, with the Michigan GOP splintered over a ballot initiative that would introduce vouchers statewide. The governor opposes the proposal, in part because he worries a divisive campaign could jeopardize Republican control of the state legislature.

Sound Bite: Engler, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson (see next page), and Pennsylvania’s Tom Ridge get a lot of credit for the GOP’s renewed focus on education. Earlier this year, Engler told a reporter, “It’s the governors in the Republican Party who have, without question, enjoyed substantial success in the ‘90s and who have been bringing millions more Americans into the Republican Party.”

Rod Paige
Superintendent, Houston schools

Vitals: 66 years old. Divorced with one child. Named Houston superintendent in 1994.

Credentials: A Texan who knows the candidate and his approach to schools. Paige, who is advising the Bush campaign, points to the school system he leads as proof that the candidate’s ideas can work. Reforms in Houston have been controversial—Paige has linked principal pay to student performance and pushed reading instruction toward phonics—but test scores are up, and there’s renewed public confidence in the district, the seventh largest in the nation. The superintendent would have to take a pay cut as secretary—he earns $275,000 a year, more than any other superintendent—but his seven years in Houston make him somewhat of an anomaly among urban school chiefs, who often don’t last long in the job.

Potential Firsts: If named, Paige would be the first superintendent and the first African American to serve as education secretary.

Sound Bite: Paige says many Texas leaders share credit for the state’s education gains but claims, “Improvement under Bush has been spectacular because it has been the centerpiece of his administration.”

Lisa Graham Keegan
Arizona superintendent of schools

Vitals: 41 years old. Married with five children. Elected as state schools chief in 1994 after a high-profile career in the Arizona legislature.

Credentials: A darling of conservatives—she was once dubbed the “Voucher Queen"—who still manages to work both sides of the aisle. She has testified repeatedly before Congress and is well-known in Washington, D.C., political circles as a founder and head of the Education Leaders Council, a growing group of conservative state school officials. Keegan is a champion of charter schools and increased flexibility in federal funding—both key components to Bush’s reform agenda. Last spring, she got a plug to be either Bush’s running mate or education secretary from columnist George Will, who described her as an “intellectual cactus who radiates prickly thoughts.”

Achilles’ Heel: Though she has campaigned for Bush, Keegan earlier advised Bush’s chief rival for the GOP nomination, fellow Arizonan John McCain.

Sound Bite: “I suspect I’m not at the top of the list,” Keegan says of her chances of being tapped as education secretary, “and I have no regrets. . . . I certainly believe Governor Bush is right to look for people who have been loyal to him over a period of time.”

Tommy Thompson
Governor of Wisconsin

Vitals: 58 years old. Married with three children. Is serving fourth term as governor.

Credentials: A maverick school reformer. In Wisconsin, he established a strong standards and accountability program while fending off efforts to kill Milwaukee’s first-of-its-kind private school voucher system. Outside of education, Thompson has earned national attention for reforming the state’s welfare system. Once a firebrand conservative, the governor in recent years has shifted toward the political center. His résumé includes stints leading national education groups, including the Education Commission of the States and the National Education Goals Panel.

Inside Dope: Born in the small town of Elroy, Wisconsin, Thompson is working hard to put the state’s 11 electoral votes in Bush’s column. This summer, he chaired the Republican Party platform committee and helped replace the conservative rhetoric of the 1996 document—including a proposal to abolish the Department of Education—with Bush’s theme of “compassionate conservatism.”

Sound Bite: Thompson insists there was no quid pro quo involved in his work for Bush on the GOP platform: “If, after the election, he wants to sit down and talk to me about his vision, that’s fine,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this summer. “He doesn’t have to.”

—Erik W. Robelen


Roy Romer
Superintendent, Los Angeles schools

Vitals: 71 years old. Married with seven children. After serving as governor of Colorado from 1987 to 1998, Romer briefly led the Democratic National Committee and raised big bucks for the party. A few months ago, he was picked to lead the L.A. schools, one of the country’s most troubled urban districts.

Credentials: A forceful, energetic politician known for his humor and the bomber jackets he likes to wear. In the past few years, whenever rumors circulated that Riley was quitting, Romer was usually talked about as his likely successor. But Riley never left, and the former governor, by taking the L.A. job, has gone from front-runner to dark horse. As governor, Romer built a strong education record: He helped create innovative academic standards in Colorado, and he founded and led the National Education Goals Panel.

Sound Bite: At the Democratic National Convention, Romer responded with guffaws when asked if he would be interested in the secretary’s job. He was adamant that he would stay in L.A to oversee long-term reforms, saying, “I’ll take myself out of the running.”

Why He Still Might Be Picked: Leading the L.A. school system, the second largest in the country, bolsters Romer’s credentials. Also, the city’s volatile politics could turn on him.

Thomas Carper
Governor of Delaware

Vitals: 53 years old. Married with two children. Served as the state’s U.S. representative from 1982 to 1992. Now, after eight years as governor, he’s stepping down to try to unseat five-term U.S. Senator William Roth in a close race. If Carper loses and Gore wins, his staff says he would be keen on the secretary’s job.

Credentials: A charismatic and popular career politician who’s made education a top priority. In Delaware, Carper shepherded through the legislature a package of standards-based reforms that, among other things, tied teacher evaluations to student performance. The plan has given Carper national cachet—he’s promoted it heavily—but it’s also caused problems at home. The teacher-accountability component—something few states have experimented with-has soured his once-good relations with the state teachers’ union, which declined to endorse his Senate bid.

Inside Dope: Carper mentors a disadvantaged student and loves to visit schools. But two years ago, one of his classroom drop-bys brought him unwanted attention when he reportedly admonished unruly elementary school students by screaming, “Shut up!”

Sound Bite: Asked if he would be interested in the secretary’s job, Carper joked, “I accept!” If he wins the Senate race, he added, “I’ll be the best partner that any secretary of education could ask for.”

Bruce Reed
White House domestic policy adviser

Vitals: 40 years old. Married with two children. Has been at the White House since the first day of the Clinton-Gore administration, working in a variety of jobs in the domestic policy office.

Credentials: The inside guy at the White House on Clinton’s education initiatives for 100,000 new teachers, federal school construction aid, and higher-education tax credits. Gore is advocating many of the same proposals. Reed is not a household name, but the Clinton domestic policy shop is notorious for its legislative upsets in the Republican-led Congress and for bringing education to the forefront of politics.

Inside Dope: Reed was a speechwriter from 1985 to 1989 for then-Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, and the vice president reportedly sees him as a good friend and trusted adviser.

How He Could Get It: A veteran of Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid, Reed is on leave from his White House job to work on Gore’s campaign. His reward for a job well done might be education’s Cabinet post.

James Hunt
Governor of North Carolina

Vitals: 63 years old. Married with four children. Is retiring after four terms (nonconsecutive) as governor.

Credentials: Like Riley, a Southern governor with ties to Bill Clinton. Hunt’s an education wonk who’s comfortable on the national stage. As the founder and former chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, he’s helped create a national certification process for outstanding teachers. At home, he’s pushed universal kindergarten, standards and accountability, and increased teacher pay. Clinton has touted Hunt’s child-care and teacher-education programs as models.

Inside Dope: A 20-year veteran teacher is an education adviser to Hunt in North Carolina.

Sound Bite: “I’m not a candidate for anything,” Hunt said at the Democratic National Convention in August. He added, “I’d have to think long and hard before taking on another political post. . . . But we’ll see about things like that.”

—Joetta L. Sack