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Who Could Be Romney’s Education Secretary?

By Alyson Klein — August 26, 2012 4 min read
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With the Republican National Convention about to kick off, it’s officially time to start speculating about who could be presumptive GOP Mitt Romney’s education secretary if he wins the presidential election.

After all, way back in 2008 (Aug. 8, to be exact), Politics K-12 guessed that then-Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan could be then-Democratic contender Barack Obama’s pick on Aug. 8. So we’re actually late to the dance this year.

This time, there’s not a lot of agreement among the Republicans that I polled. This is going to be a tight election and folks are focused on that. Still, Romney, like other presumptive nominees in both parties in past years, has started some preliminary transition planning. When it comes to the U.S. Department of Education, it’s still the very early stage, where lots of people are floating lots of names, folks said.

The number one guess among Republicans that I talked to? Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who wrote the foreword to Romney’s education plan and some of his former education staff are part of the campaign. Bush is also the “godfather” of the state superintendents’ group “Chiefs for Change” (identified with what’s become known as the “reform” side of the education debate) and has had a major impact on state-level education policies. Plus, K-12 was one of his signature issues when he was governor of the Sunshine State. But does he
have higher aspirations than 400 Maryland Ave?

Another former governor is also on the top of a lot of folks’ lists: Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota. He very nearly got the nod for vice presidential candidate. Pawlenty has a long record on education in Minnesota, where he was a supportive of alternative pay. He’s almost certain to be tapped for a post in the Romney administration, if he wants one, but it’s tough to say if the Education Department would be his first choice.

State chiefs have dominated many people’s lists. Often mentioned is Tony Bennett, Indiana’s superintendent of Public Instruction, and one of the original members of Chiefs for Change. Bennett’s been highly visible on education issues and has lots of fans among Republicans, including former Gov. Bush.

Still, in testifying before the House education committee, Bennett asked the feds to provide political cover (“guardrails”) on K-12 reform efforts. Does that jibe with some Republicans’ plans to shrink back the federal role? Would that matter?

Another popular pick: Tom Luna, who serves as the Idaho superintendent of public instruction. Luna, who is on Romney’s team of education advisors, worked in the department during President George W. Bush’s administration, and currently serves as the president of the bipartisan Council of Chief State School Officers. And given Romney’s dissing of the teacher’s unions, Luna’s got anti-union street cred to spare—his tires were slashed last year when he tried to raise class size and put merit pay in place.

Other folks are fans of New Jersey’s Chris Cerf, a registered Democrat who works with a GOP governor (Tuesday’s keynote speaker, Chris Christie).

Also among the mentioned: Former Texas chief Robert Scott, whose state did not sign onto the Common Core, throw its hat in the ring for Race to the Top, or apply for one of the administration’s waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But the Texas angle could complicate confirmation, folks say.

And some former chiefs are in the mix, including Paul Pastorek from Louisiana, who helped schools in the Pelican State recover from Hurricane Katrina, and Lisa Graham Keegan, of Arizona. Keegan was the rumored
second-runner up for President George W. Bush’s secretary of education, plus folks think she did a bang-up job serving as the top K-12 surrogate for then-GOP nominee John McCain back in 2008. Possible pitfall? She supported former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the primary this time around.

There are also some possible dark-horse candidates. At least one member of Congress came up on the list: U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, of Illinois, a moderate Republican who is locked in a very tight re-election campaign. She’s got a long record on education, and is well-liked. Plus, there aren’t too many women on the various lists. Another suggestion: a businessman, like Bill Green, the executive chairman at Accenture, a consulting organization.

Folks have also suggested that Romney could use the Education Department as the one place to stick a (non-state chief) Democrat, to show his administration can be bipartisan. The name that came up most often? Former New York City chancellor Joel Klein. Other folks suggested Michelle Rhee, a Democrat, who is now running the Students First juggernaut and will be in both Tampa and Charlotte. She’ll be at screenings of the parent-trigger movie “Won’t Back Down.” (If you haven’t already read Edweek’s review of that movie, stop what you’re doing right now and check it out. You’ll thank me.)

And the biggest surprise suggestion from Republican sources (drumroll): Arne Duncan! (Were folks pulling my leg here?) But even if it is a joke, it shows Duncan’s still got some cross-aisle credibility. Plus, he did say he
wanted to stick around! Still, don’t bet the bank—or even your latte money—on this one. And one thing’s for certain, no GOP White House will be handing the department another $100 billion for education.

So that’s pretty much everyone in the GOP with a record on education issues—and I’m sure I’ve missed someone who could be on the very long list. I’ll add any new names I hear down in Tampa, but feel free to email me with tips, or hit up the comments section with your best guess.

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