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Who Could Be the Next Secretary of Education After the 2020 Election?

By Andrew Ujifusa & Evie Blad — February 02, 2020 17 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has shown how politically potent and polarizing ideas like school choice can be when the public attaches them so strongly to a highly visible person. So with the Iowa caucuses upon us, let’s permit ourselves to wonder: Who could be the next secretary of education?

We asked several lobbyists, analysts, and others for their responses to that question; they talked to us on background in order to speak candidly. Some of the names they suggested have come up in the past. To be clear, though, none of the people we talked to work directly for the Democratic or Republican campaigns. So maybe don’t make triumphant or despondent TikTok videos about any of the names we mention just yet. And of course the names below don’t constitute any sort of comprehensive list.

One thing we heard consistently: In part due to Democrats’ attitude towards and public statements about DeVos, a Democratic president-elect is particularly likely to pick someone who is or has recently been a practitioner and worked in the public education sector. But it’s also fair to ponder whether the next secretary (whether he or she works for a Democrat or Republican) will hail from a higher education background, given all the attention on the 2020 campaign trail to student debt and the cost of higher education. DeVos herself has recently demonstrated that the secretary often has much more authority over higher education than over K-12.

“It’s not something that I would predict, but it’s something that I would not be surprised to see happen,” one person said of a nominee coming from higher education. “To be honest, I think it would be a wise move.”

A final caveat: Former Vice President Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to name just two top-tier Democratic candidates, have promised they would appoint someone with experience teaching in a public school. (Warren has also publicized another prerequisite for her nominee.) Will they stick to that promise? Will others hew to the same or a similar pledge regarding people from public school backgrounds?

Here are some of the names that came up during our conversations:

If a Democrat Wins in 2020

• State Education Leaders

Maybe you missed it when a presidential candidate praised a leading state education official. But that’s what Sen. Amy Klobuchar did last summer when talking about her home state of Minnesota, saying in July, “We put in place a union member and leader as education commissioner.”

Klobuchar was referring to Mary Cathryn Ricker, who was tapped for the post by Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, last year. She previously served as executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers before working in Minnesota’s education department, and she’s a former classroom teacher. So picking Ricker, or someone with a similar background, would send a clear message that teachers’ unions would have a friendly person leading the Education Department. (More on that below.)

One person we talked to pointed to Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s state chief who was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, in 2015. Rivera has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and district superintendent before his current job. He’s made educational equity and out-of-school factors that affect learning public priorities for him in a way that could easily appeal to many Democrats.

“I found him pretty impressive when I heard him at some of the [Council of Chief State School Officer] events,” this person told us. “That is something that you would want in a secretary. You’d want them to have a clear racial-equity lens.” Jeffrey C. Riley, the Massachusetts state chief who previously led turnaround efforts in the Lawrence, Mass., district, also came up in a conversation.

Others who’ve taken over as state chiefs in recent years who could also be in the mix include two elected leaders, Tony Thurmond of California and Kathy Hoffman of Arizona. Both won tough contests in 2018—though they were tough for different reasons—and could be seen as rising stars. Hoffman is a Democrat; Thurmond’s office is nonpartisan, but he won his race with strong union support over Marshall Tuck and served as a Democrat in the state legislature. Hoffman’s candidacy in 2018 drew strength from a relatively robust #RedForEd movement in Arizona.

All of the above state chiefs have different degrees of experience teaching and working directly in or with schools. Among the names we mentioned, Rivera has been at his job the longest, since 2015. Hoffman, Ricker, and Thurmond have been in their positions for a little over a year. Their short tenures could be a factor in decisions about education secretary nominees. (More on that below.)

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. was New York’s education chief before heading to Washington, first as Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s adviser and then as secretary under President Barack Obama, so it’s not unprecedented. But state chiefs sometimes don’t garner the same attention as those working in closer proximity to schools.

“It’s kind of a weird position,” one person said. “It doesn’t have the glamour of a Chicago or Houston superintendent.”

Speaking of which ...

• District Leaders

A big-city superintendent who has some name-recognition in the education world could get the nod, just like Rod Paige (Houston, was education secretary under President George W. Bush) and Arne Duncan (Chicago, served under Obama) have in the past. A few district superintendents who could fit the bill on that basis—in alphabetical order—include Richard Carranza of New York City, Alberto Carvalho of Miami-Dade, Brenda Cassellius of Boston, and Denise Juneau of Seattle.

Each of them brings different strengths and weaknesses to the table. Carranza, for example, previously led Houston schools, which gives him experience as the superintendent of two of the largest districts in the country. He’s also sparked a contentious debate about school integration, which has had big moments in the Democratic presidential primary. Carvalho has a big national profile, although he turned down the chance to lead the Big Apple’s public schools at the last moment.

Meanwhile, both Cassellius and Juneau have previously served as state superintendents, which could prove useful at the Education Department. (Juneau unsuccessfully ran for a U.S. House seat while serving as Montana state chief in 2016.)

• Governors, Past and Present

One name that came up in a few conversations is Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin. A Democrat who beat Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election, Evers previously served as the state’s elected schools superintendent. Less prominently, he was also president of the Council of Chief State School Officers for a stretch during the Obama administration. He also happens to get on well with the Wisconsin teachers’ union.

All those bona fides could come into play if Evers decides he doesn’t want to constantly fight with Wisconsin Republicans who control the state legislature and would rather take another job. However, Evers only took office in 2019 and may decide he doesn’t want to leave office just halfway through his first term.

“I would love Tony. I have a high regard for him,” one person said. “I find that he has an amazing composure and ability to articulate the issue, and reflect the diversity of people he represents.”

We mentioned Gov. Tim Walz above; he previously taught high school social studies in Minnesota, and one person we spoke with floated him as a possible pick. Walz also served in Congress from 2007 to 2019, when he took over as governor at about the same time Evers did.

Governors can make attractive candidates because of their political acumen and records and experience leading large organizations; President Bill Clinton picked Richard Riley, South Carolina’s former governor, and Riley stayed for Clinton’s entire presidency. But there aren’t many Democratic governors who aren’t in their first terms, and among those who are veterans, those like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jay Inslee of Washington, may not be great fits. (Inslee, if he wants a cabinet job, could be a more natural fit for interior secretary, for example.)

Ex-governors who could come up in the conversation include Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who’s currently running for president and clearly has his eye on a potential Washington role, and Jack Markell of Delaware, who made education policy one of his signature issues. But it’s not clear that they would excite many Democrats or satisfy stated desires about wanting a former educator to lead the department.

We mentioned short tenures earlier. Democrats’ ranks at the state level were hit hard by the GOP wave in the 2010 midterms, and for the most part they’ve struggled to make up those losses; the 2018 midterm election was the first banner election cycle for state Democrats in some time. That means many Democratic officeholders in states are pretty new in their jobs, and might not be or feel ready for a jump to the federal government.

• Federal Lawmakers

There isn’t a big clutch of Senate Democrats who are natural candidates for the job. Indeed, in the history of the U.S. Department of Education, no one has jumped directly from serving in Congress to becoming education secretary.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado could slot in relatively well for candidates in the perceived “moderate” lane, although remember that’s assuming he falls short in his long-shot bid for the presidency. The ex-superintendent of Denver schools has underscored his focus on issues like early-childhood education and school segregation as a presidential candidate. However, for some Democrats, his relatively strong support for charters and Obama-era accountability policies might be nails on the chalkboard.

“That’s a possibility if you have a Buttigieg or Biden,” one person told us about Bennet, referring to former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “But Biden’s on the record about the classroom experience thing, and that’s not a box Bennet checks. I think that’s a long shot except for anyone like a hypothetical Buttigieg [administration].”

If a new Democratic president wants to reach into the House, one name that could come up is Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida, who’s a former president of the University of Miami as well as ex-Health and Human Services chief under Clinton. Shalala would likely be a signal the next administration wants to focus on higher education. However, Shalala was elected to Congress in 2018, so she’d have to agree to cut her Capitol Hill career pretty short.

But there’s someone else who might fit the current mood of the Democratic Party more than either Bennet or Shalala: Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut.

Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year who like Shalala was elected to the House in 2018. You might remember her for confronting DeVos about her stance on arming school staff, an episode that was no accident; she’s consistently spoken out against DeVos’ record and in favor of more resources for schools with large shares of students from low-income backgrounds. Would she want to leave Congress after only two years, though?

“She ran for Congress and got elected and became a huge champion for the policy around education and what’s needed,” one lobbyist told us. “She has walked the walk.”

• Higher Education

So what if a Democrat turns to the realm of higher education? Two names that came up in 2016 as possible picks for Hillary Clinton during her presidential bid could come up again: Freeman Hrabowski, the long-time president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system.

Hrabowski has led UMBC, a public university, for 28 years, and during his tenure he and the university have garnered national recognition. Perhaps his signature success has been UMBC’s work with black students in the STEM fields; in 2012, the Baltimore Sun wrote that more black students graduated with science and technology degrees from UMBC than from any other non-historically black university in the state. Other universities like Harvard and MIT as well organizations like the Carnegie Corporation of New York have recognized his work.

Napolitano previously served as Homeland Security secretary in the Obama administration after serving as Arizona’s Democratic governor. She’s stepping down as the UC system president this coming August and has said she’s interested in teaching and writing after that, so a return to a White House cabinet post might not be in the cards. Napolitano worked to expand access to the UC system to community college students and defended the rights of undocumented students to financial aid, but she also received criticisms over the system’s finances during her tenure.

One person puckishly pointed out that Democrats’ fondness for Harvard grandees might lead a Democratic president-elect to take a look at Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard first-ever female president (Faust left that job in 2018). Picking someone like Faust would cut against what a different observer told us might be the inclination by a Democrat to pick someone from a public college or university.

• Other

Linda Darling-Hammond came up as a potential education secretary nominee for a Democratic president in 2008. She came up again in 2016. And if a Democrat wins the presidency, she could be in the mix one more time.

Darling-Hammond is the founder, president, and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, which focuses on conducting and sharing education policy research about teacher quality and recruitment, curriculum, assessment, and more. She’s the president of the California state board of education. She was the education policy leader for President Barack Obama’s transition team after his 2008 win. She’s a former public school teacher who helped start a charter school—which, it must be said, made headlines for the wrong reasons in the past due to academic struggles. In short, she has decades of experience in education policy, politics, and practice. And she’s high-profile enough for a Democratic president-elect to take notice.

In addition, Darling-Hammond “can boast long, close ties to the unions and certainly commands their respect,” one person said.

We’ve gotten this far without mentioning Lily Eskelsen García and Randi Weingarten. The presidents of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers might seem like natural candidates in a Democratic administration. Yet Weingarten, despite enthusiastically backing Clinton’s candidacy in 2016, denied having any interest in being education secretary in a hypothetical Clinton administration. It’s not clear what if anything has changed, especially when union presidents are likely to be quite influential in a new Democratic administration without having to sit in the secretary’s seat. Choosing either one of them might seem politically obtuse to some and invite all-too-easy pushback.

If a Republican Wins in 2020

It’s a bit more difficult to speculate on who President Trump would appoint to as education secretary in a hypothetical second term, in part because of his unconventional style of assembling a cabinet. The president does have some primary opponents, but they aren’t expected to pose a serious challenge to the nomination, and many share similar views about issues like school choice and the federal role in education.

The sources we spoke to about Trump grouped their guesses not by professional background but by different approaches Trump might take in selecting an appointee.

• Will Betsy DeVos Serve a Second Term?

Education policy watchers across the ideological spectrum speculate that DeVos will finish out Trump’s first term and return to her home state of Michigan if there is a second one.

DeVos, asked at an Education Writers Association event in May if she would stick around for four more years said: “I’m not sure my husband would be OK with that.”

It’s common for cabinet positions to turnover between terms, and its rare for education secretaries to serve as long as Duncan, who was in the role for nearly seven years, making him one of the longest-serving members of the Obama cabinet. Still, one person believes DeVos may feel a sense of duty to continue serving if Trump asks her directly to do so.

• Big, Splashy Names

In other cabinet roles, Trump has a history of initially appointing a visible, known person to the role at first and then replacing that person by elevating someone from within the department when there is turnover. Would the same happen with the Education Department? Or would a new term and a fresh cabinet lead the president to seek out a more visible candidate? Folks we spoke to weren’t sure.

If the president wanted to make a big splash, he might pick a candidate with a history of fighting high-profile battles in the education space, like former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, or Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.

Walker gained national attention for his successful push to strip collective bargaining rights for his state’s teachers and other public employees in 2011. The Trump administration, and DeVos in particular, have painted teachers unions as barriers to improving the nation’s schools.

DeSantis rose to prominence with an ad from his campaign in the 2018 governor’s race that linked him to Trump. And in the time since, he’s taken on a number of education issues, including choice, Common Core State Standards, and school safety. But he may be reluctant to leave a high-profile governor’s position, especially so early in his tenure.

In 2016, Falwell told the Associated Press Trump initially offered him the education secretary job, but he turned it down for personal reasons. Falwell has appeared with Trump at campaign events and championed his approach to free speech on campus, but he’s faced some controversy over his leadership of Liberty University and a lawsuit centered on a disputed business deal, and that may make a Senate confirmation process pretty turbulent, one person told us.

• Experienced Options

If Trump opted to select someone with more experience overseeing an education department, he might tap someone like Tenessee Sen. Lamar Alexander or Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Frank Brogan, people told us.

Alexander, who does not plan to seek another term in the Senate, has experience as president of the University of Tennessee and as George H.W. Bush’s education secretary. He chairs the Senate education committee and had a key role in the passage of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act. There’s precedent for reappointing a former Bush pick: Attorney General Bill Barr also previously served in that cabinet. But Alexander, viewed as an “institutionalist” with deep policy knowledge, may be frustrated with Trump’s unconventional approach to governing, policy watchers predicted.

Brogan, who was confirmed to his current role in June 2018, previously served as chancellor of the Pennsylvania and Florida university systems, lieutenant governor of Florida, Florida commissioner of education, and in a variety of K-12 education roles. He’s played a key role in DeVos’s education department, and he would bring a broad base of institutional knowledge with him as an appointee, people told us.

• Other Options

Other possibilities that got some attention: Former Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, Gerard Robinson, or someone with a greater interest in higher education.

Messer is a lobbyist and former congressman who has been a big champion of a variety of school choice initiatives, putting him in line with one of Trump’s key education priorities.

Robinson previously helped the Trump transition team on education issues. He is executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, an education organization that was created through a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Charles Koch Foundation, and Koch Industries. He previously served as the education commissioner in Florida and the secretary of education in Virginia, which could be useful experience at a time when states have more authority in education policy, our sources told us.

It’s possible Trump may also look to someone with more of a profile in the higher education space to help tackle issues like federal student loan programs, one person said, noting that much of DeVos’ background and advocacy during her time as secretary has focused on K-12 issues.

But as one person put it to us, “We’ve never had somebody like Betsy [DeVos] before. I wouldn’t put too much stock in what’s happened before.”

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