Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.


Obama Education Appointees: Where Are They Now?

By Alyson Klein — August 14, 2017 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Obama administration’s political appointees may have cleaned out their desks at the U.S. Department of Education and the White House six months ago or more. But that doesn’t mean that they have stopped working on K-12 policy.

Many of the folks who ran Race to the Top, oversaw waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, or helped implement the School Improvement Grant program, are still at jobs inside the Beltway, working in state education agencies, or school districts. Many have ended up at the same think tanks, non-profits, and philanthropic organizations. (The Center for American Progress was a popular landing site.) They’ve even got an informal alumni network, and a website, Education 44.

And in general, they seem to be continuing to champion the same kinds of policies they worked on during the Obama years. Think college access, equity, and innovation, often with a technological twist.

That’s not a shocker, said Elizabeth Mann, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“Political appointees at least share some policy goals on some portion of the agenda with the administration that’s in power, so it’s not terribly surprising to me that they would end up working on similar issues,” she said.

This revolving door isn’t unique to the Obama team. Former political aides often end up working on the same policies they pushed when they were heading up federal agencies and offices. Staffers from President George W. Bush’s administration have filled out the ranks at think tanks, in state education agencies, or worked for standardized testing companies. In many cases, they’ve focused on accountability for student results, a hallmark of Bush’s education agenda. And it’s easy to imagine members of the Trump team ending up at organizations that push vouchers and charter schools down the road.

So what happened to Obama’s education staffers? Here’s a quick look, both at major players, plus a smattering of other key aides. Big thanks to former press secretaries Dorie Nolt, who starts next month at Strategies 360, a research, public affairs and communications firm, and Justin Hamilton, now a communications consultant, for their help in putting together this list.

• Arne Duncan, Obama’s longest-serving education secretary, is now a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, a philanthropic and advocacy organization run by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Duncan’s focus there is disconnected youth and combatting gun violence. And he isn’t the only Obama appointee on Emerson’s roster. Russlyn Ali, who served as the assistant secretary for civil rights, is the organization’s managing director of education.

• John King, who started in what was essentially the deputy secretary role, then moved to the top job for the final year of the Obama administration, is now the president and CEO of the Education Trust, an advocacy organization that looks out for disadvantaged kids. And he brought along a few folks who worked for him at the department.

• Ary Amerikaner, for instance, who helped craft the Obama administration’s now-defunct spending rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act, is the director of P-12 resource equity at the Education Trust.

• Takirra Winfield, who was the communications point person on ESSA, is now the Education Trust’s senior director of communications and campaigns.

There are a ton of Obama-edu refugees clustered at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that was closely associated with the administration.

• Carmel Martin, the one time assistant secretary for planning evaluation and policy, who helped design waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act and the School Improvement Grant program, is the executive vice-president for policy.

• Emma Vadhera, who served as chief of staff to both Duncan and King, is a senior fellow and consultant for CAP.

• Scott Sargrad, another key waiver point person, is CAP’s managing director of K-12 policy.

Some staffers have taken a different direction and gone to work in school districts.

• Ann Whalen, who played a huge role in the implementation of Race to the Top, and came back at the end of the administration to serve as the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Whalen is now the deputy chief of academic strategy for Denver Public Schools, a district that’s implemented a lot of the same policies that Duncan pushed as secretary, including teacher merit-pay.

• Kelly Gonez, a former Obama adviser, recently won a seat on the Los Angeles school board.

• Deb Delisle, who was the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education when the administration was implementing the NCLB waivers, is now the executive director of ASCD, which supports professional development.

• Cameron Brenchley, an Obama administration social media guru, is with Delisle at ASCD.

• Tony Miller, who was Duncan’s original deputy secretary, is now at the Vistria Group, a private equity firm.

• Jim Shelton, Obama’s second deputy secretary, is now heading up the Chan Zhanberg Initiative’s education efforts. (You can read an interview with Shelton about his new role here.) Shelton was also the brains behind the administration’s Investing in Innovation program, which helped scale up promising practices at the district level.

• Catherine Lhamon, who headed up the Office for Civil Rights during Obama’s second term, is now the chair of the Commission on Civil Rights. In that role, she’s actually investigating the Trump administration’s record on civil rights issues. Read a recent Education Week interview with Lhamon here.

• Roberto Rodriguez, who served as the White House point person on K-12 through all eight years of the Obama administration, is now the president and CEO of TeachPlus, which works to help teachers have a voice in policymaking.

• Amy McIntosh, who was acting assistant secretary of planning evaluation and policy analysis during Obama’s second term, is now the associate vice-chancellor for academic strategy at the City University of New York.

• Robert Gordon, meanwhile, who held the same title as McIntosh and put a focus on evidence at the department, is a senior vice-president at the College Board.

• Peter Cunningham, who served as Duncan’s communications guru during the first term, is now running Education Post, a website that supports charter schools, rigorous accountability, the Common Core standards, and a bunch of other Duncan-esque policies.

• Alexa Posny, Obama’s first assistant secretary of special education and rehabilitative services, was famous for her Power Points, according to my colleague, ace special education reporter Christina Samuels. She’s now a senior vice-president of state and federal programs at Renaissance Learning. Michael Yudin, who replaced her, is at the Raben Group, a public affairs and strategic communications firm.

• Margot Rogers, Duncan’s original chief-of-staff, is now a senior adviser in the education practice at Parthenon-EY, a consulting organization.

• Alejandra O. Ceja, who headed up the Hispanic Outreach office at the White House, is now the executive director of the Panasonic Foundation.

• Khalilah Harris, the one-time deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, is now a vice-president at Opportunity@Work.

• Johan Uvin, who was the acting assistant secretary in the Office of Career and Technical Education, is now the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership.

• Melody Musgrove, former director of the Office of Special Education Programs, is now a co-director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning and Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Mississippi.

• Richard Culatta, who was the director of the office of educational technology is the CEO at the International Society for Technology in Education.

Finally, plenty of people are consulting, including Joanne Weiss, Duncan’s former chief of staff, as well as communications gurus Jonathan Schorr, Matt Lehrich, and Massie Ritsch.

We know, the administration was eight years long and we missed a ton of really important people. Let us know who we left out by emailing us at or

Related Tags: