School & District Management

Former Official at Gates Takes On ‘Innovation’ Job

By Alyson Klein — April 16, 2009 4 min read

James Shelton, a former program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is now heading the U.S. Department of Education office that was seen under President George W. Bush as a way to help promote charter schools and choice.

Mr. Shelton’s appointment as the assistant deputy secretary for the office of innovation and improvement shows that the administration of President Barack Obama is “serious about pushing the envelope on innovation” and rewarding entrepreneurship, said Nina S. Rees, who in 2002 was selected as the first head of the office.

“It’s very exciting. And [Secretary of Education Arne Duncan] didn’t just pick anyone to run it. He brought a seasoned and well-known education reformer to the office,” Ms. Rees said.

Mr. Shelton began working at the department on March 29.

His appointment, which did not require Senate confirmation, was one of several recent personnel decisions at the Education Department as the Obama administration continues the task of staffing key jobs. Some top positions remain vacant, including that of deputy secretary, the No. 2 position.

In his new job, Mr. Shelton will help oversee the development and grant process for two new Education Department programs created as part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund and the $650 million “Invest in What Works and Innovation” Fund, said John McGrath, a spokesman for the department.

Although those pots of money make up a relatively small part of the approximately $100 billion to be dispensed through the Education Department under the economic-stimulus measure, the programs will give the federal government exceptional leeway to reward districts and states that are deemed to be making substantial progress on student achievement.

The Bush administration envisioned the office of innovation and improvement as a home for a diverse portfolio of programs, addressing issues such as charter schools and other forms of public school choice, as well as academic areas, including educating gifted and talented students.

Under that administration, its head was considered the department’s chief advocate for school choice. The office helped implement the public-school-choice and supplementary-services provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

But that portfolio may change somewhat under President Obama, Ms. Rees suggested.

“I would assume [Mr. Shelton] is going to pay more attention to the teacher-quality-enhancement grants,” which support colleges of education, and other teacher-quality programs, Ms. Rees said.

Mr. Shelton was program director of the Education Division at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He helped manage grants in the Eastern United States, new school creations and replications, and efforts to broaden college access. Before joining Gates, he was a partner for the NewSchools Venture Fund, an entrepreneurial philanthropy based in San Francisco, according to a biography available on the fund’s Web site.

Other Appointments Made

Glenn Cummings

Earlier this month, Mr. Duncan tapped Colorado Senate President Peter Groff to serve as director for the Education Department’s faith-based and community initiatives center. The selection does not require Senate confirmation.

Mr. Groff, a proponent of charter schools and an early supporter of Mr. Obama’s presidential bid, is a founding member of the Colorado branch of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER, a New York City-based political action committee. He won the organization’s “education warrior” award in 2008.

In the Colorado legislature last year, Mr. Groff helped craft the state’s Innovation Schools Act, which gave school districts more leeway to hire staff members outside of union contracts and more control over how much time teachers spend in class.

Peter Groff

Secretary Duncan selected another state legislator who supported Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign to join the department: Glenn Cummings, who served as speaker of the House in Maine, has been tapped to serve as deputy assistant secretary for the office of vocational and adult education.

Mr. Cummings is currently dean of institutional advancement for Southern Maine Community College. His new position doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

Before joining Southern Maine Community College, Mr. Cummings chaired the House education committee in Maine and then became speaker during the 2007-08 session. He sponsored legislation that requires all Maine high school students to apply for college.

Mr. Cummings said in an interview that he wants to focus on “that hinge-joint between high school and college—those who are at the margins of not going into higher education.”

In another Education Department appointment, David J. Hoff, an associate editor at Education Week, will join the department’s communications team next month as a deputy assistant secretary. In his 12 ½ years at the newspaper, Mr. Hoff has covered federal and state K-12 policy, among other areas. Mr. Hoff’s position does not require Senate confirmation.

Separately, former San Diego schools Superintendent and California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin has also been tapped for a position in the Obama administration, although he won’t be working on K-12 policy.

Mr. Bersin, who also is a former U.S. attorney in San Diego, will oversee policy on drug violence and illegal immigration along the border with Mexico, as the assistant secretary for international affairs and special representative for border affairs in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He had a similar role in the U.S. Justice Department under President Bill Clinton. His position doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil and Library Director Kathryn Dorko contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as Former Official at Gates Takes On ‘Innovation’ Job

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