School & District Management

As Obama Panel Studies Education Dept., Search for Secretary Continues

By David J. Hoff & Alyson Klein — December 08, 2008 3 min read
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One month after the election, neither President-elect Barack Obama nor his transition team had given any serious indication about who might be the next U.S. secretary of education.

Even before the election, observers said Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, would be an obvious candidate to take the job in an Obama administration, given his work over the past seven years as the top public school official in Mr. Obama’s hometown and his personal relationship with the president-elect.

Mr. Duncan met with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in Washington last week. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Ms. Spellings’ planned visit to Chicago on Dec. 11, according to sources familiar with the meeting. But the sight of Mr. Duncan entering the Department of Education fanned speculation in what is always a rumor-rampant process.

Other potential candidates for education secretary include several current or former governors.

The appointment of Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi, to the Obama education transition team led some observers to believe that Mr. Mabus, who endorsed Mr. Obama’s presidential bid in May 2007, may be seeking the top education post. During his one term as governor, from 1988 to 1992, Mr. Mabus led a statewide school reform effort, which included raising teacher salaries.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a former chairwoman of the Education Commission of the States, and North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley, both Democrats, have also been mentioned as potential education secretaries.

Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who is leading a review of federal education policy for the Obama transition team, also is considered a candidate for the job.

Although almost all the candidates discussed are Democrats, John Podesta, who is managing the transition effort, said in a recent TV interview that President-elect Obama would appoint several Republicans to his Cabinet. Of the six Cabinet nominees announced by last week, only Robert M. Gates, whom Mr. Obama intends to retain from the Bush administration as secretary of defense, is a Republican.

The desire to be bipartisan may lead to a surprise GOP candidate. Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is the only Republican who has been mentioned as a potential secretary of education.

Diverse Advisers

Although there’s been little hint of who might be named to the top Education Department job, the transition has released a list of the advisers who are serving on a panel charged with helping to develop education policy for the new administration. That team is headed by Ms. Darling-Hammond.

Thomas Toch, a co-director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, said there has been “tension between different generations of reformers” working in the Obama transition. But he said the differences are not fundamental.

“They all believe in incentivizing the public school system to perform better,” Mr. Toch said.

Like the advisers who helped Mr. Obama form his education platform during the campaign, the policy-group members represent a range of perspectives and backgrounds.

For instance, Geri Palast is considered an expert on school finance issues. She was an assistant secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton and now leads the New York City-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which successfully fought a long legal battle to win more money for the state’s schools.

Another adviser, Robert Gordon, has worked on school finance issues for the roughly 1 million-student New York City school system, and has helped the district’s chancellor, Joel I. Klein, with human-capital initiatives. Mr. Gordon was an adviser to Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington led by Mr. Podesta.

Meanwhile, the transition team expanded its outreach to education groups last week.

On Dec. 2, several members of Mr. Obama’s education transition team, including Ms. Darling-Hammond, met with the Learning First Alliance, which includes major education groups representing teachers, school board members, and school executives.

John Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, who attended the meeting, said the group talked about many issues, including federal education aid and how the economy is affecting schools.

“Many of us felt like there was, for the first time, actually collaboration on the part of the [incoming] administration,” Mr. Musso said.

Staff Writer Michele McNeil contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as As Obama Panel Studies Education Dept., Search For Secretary Continues

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