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Who Could Be Donald Trump’s Education Secretary?

By Alyson Klein — November 15, 2016 6 min read
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President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t have a track record on education, which means that his choice of education secretary will send a really important signal on where he wants to go in terms of policy on the Every Student Succeeds Act, higher education, and more.

So who is on the short list? Tough to say, but here are some names making the rounds inside the Beltway:

Dr. Ben Carson: The neurosurgeon was among Trump’s opponents in the Republican presidential primaries and later endorsed him. As a candidate, Carson’s proposed education agenda, like Trump’s, centered on school choice. It’s easy to imagine that Carson, who is famous for separating conjoined twins, would spend a lot of time as secretary talking about the importance of science education. It’s unclear what form that would take though, given some of Carson’s other views. As secretary, Carson could revive the culture wars over how to teach evolution, since he’s said in the past he doesn’t believe in it. UPDATE: It doesn’t look like Carson is interested in serving in Trump’s cabinet, according to Bloomberg.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin: Walker, also a one-time Trump GOP primary rival, is probably best known for rolling back collective bargaining rights for public employees, including teachers, in Wisconsin. It’s unclear if he wants to sit at the helm of the education department, but a lot of Republicans in Washington have him on the top of their wish list. Since Walker is, or at least was, a rising star in the party, such a pick could elevate the importance of the issue.

Gerard Robinson: The former state chief in Virginia and Florida is now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a leader of Trump’s transition team on education. Check out Andrew’s interview with him here on what he hopes to see from a Trump administration. (Robinson was speaking only for himself in the interview, not on behalf of any organization.)

Williamson Evers: A research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, he served in a top policymaking role—assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy—during the tail end of the President George W. Bush’s administration. Evers, who has worked for past GOP presidential campaigns, is also a leader of the Trump transition team. He’s a veteran of the so-called “math wars” in California, has opposed teacher tenure, and was part of the Bush administration’s efforts to restart K-12 education in Iraq. More in this story. One possibility: Evers doesn’t become secretary, but gets a key role in the administration that could matter just as much on K-12, such as deputy secretary (the No. 2 post in the department).

Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana: The GOP congressman pushed legislation that would allow Title I money for disadvantaged kids to follow students to the school of their choice, including a private school. That proposal ultimately foundered, but Messer has done some deep thinking on the question of how small-government-friendly Republicans could push choice. And he has a track record of working in a bipartisan way. He’s teamed up with Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., on student data privacy legislation, for instance.

Former Indiana state chief Tony Bennett: Bennett, who was a driving force in Chiefs for Change in its early days, is close to both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and incoming Vice President Mike Pence, who served as governor of Indiana. As state chief, Bennett, a Republican, pushed for an ambitious education redesign agenda, including teacher evaluation through student outcomes, A through F grades for schools, an expansion of charter schools and vouchers, and more. He was also a consistent supporter of the Common Core State Standards, which Trump doesn’t like. But his hard charging style didn’t sit well with some educators, and he was defeated in his bid for re-election by Glenda Ritz, a Democrat. (Ritz went on to lose her own re-election bid this year.) Later, Bennett became Florida’s state chief.

But he came under scrutiny when emails showed that, during his tenure in Indiana, he had changed the grade of a charter school from “C” to “A.” The school, Christel House, was run by a philanthropist who donated to Bennett’s campaign. Bennett left his gig in Florida, and was ultimately cleared of ethics violations by the Indiana State Ethics Commission. He was found guilty of using state resources for political purposes, and had to pay a $5,000 fine.

Admiral William McRaven: He is a former United States Navy admiral who oversaw special operations, and is the current chancellor of the University of Texas system. He’d be the first secretary with a primarily higher education background since Lauro Cavazos who served as education secretary under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Tony Zeiss: The former president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. retired in February after more than two decades of service. The school became a national leader in workforce development under his watch, according to the Charlotte Observer. His work even got a shout-out in President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address. Zeiss, whose name surfaced late Tuesday, would be another higher education pick. And like Pence, he’s a Hoosier.

Eva Moskowitz or Michelle Rhee: Both of these “reformey” Democrats were floated by a Trump spokesman during an appearence on MSNBC. Moskowitz is the founder of Success Academy Charter Schools, Rhee is the controversial former chancellor of public schools in the District of Columbia, where she pushed through policies like performance pay. Both are Democrats, so their policies could be pretty different from most of the other folks on this list. More on the odds of either of them getting the nod here.

Jeanne Allen: She’s a long-time school choice advocate who founded the Center for Education Reform, which champions vouchers and charter schools. Allen served as a senior aide at the U.S. Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan. In May, Allen said she rejected the opportunity to advise Trump’s campaign on education issues, telling us, “I don’t want my issues coming out of his mouth.”

It sounds like Allen may have reconsidered since then. She was heartened by the selection of Pence, and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, she said on Twitter.

A Total Outsider: Before the election, Carl Paladino, a school member in Buffalo, N.Y., and Trump surrogate, told the Council of the Great City Schools that Trump could go completely outside the box on the education secretary pick and choose a business leader or someone with experience outside of education.

In addition, two other school choice advocates, Betty DeVos, a philanthropist, and Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. City council member and a Democrat, are also possibilities. Both sit on the board of directors of the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization. (Hat tip: Politico).

Of course, filling the lower-level positions at the department, such as the deputy secretary and assistant secretaries, can have an equally outsized impact on K-12. Over at Rick Hess Straight Up, the education policy director at AEI has some ideas.

Did we miss someone? Email us at aklein@epe.org, or aujifusa@epe.org. We will update this post as new names trickle out.


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