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Who Might Be a Clinton Education Secretary?

By Alyson Klein — August 08, 2016 7 min read
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Now that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and her running mate, Tim Kaine are officially hitting the campaign trail, it’s time to start speculating: Who might her education secretary be if she wins the White House?

It’s not too early to ask the question. After all, at this point in 2008, a lot of folks were pretty sure that President Barack Obama was going to choose Arne Duncan, his basketball buddy and the superintendent of Chicago public schools, to run the U.S. Department of Education.

But Democrats we spoke to were far less confident this time around about who is on Clinton’s short list, or if she even has one yet. However, because this kind of thing is fun, we couldn’t help asking some Democrats to give us their very best speculation, anonymously of course.

What did they say? First, some big caveats: It’s worth noting right here at the top that none of the Democrats we spoke to are Hillary Clinton, or anyone employed by her campaign. So we would not suggest you bet the bank—or even your latte money—on any of these names. We will probably revisit this question at least one more time before a potential Clinton transition kicks into high gear.

Caveats in place ... let the guessing begin!

Higher Education Focus

Democrats say that, if they take the White House, there’s a good chance the next education secretary may buck a long-standing tradition and be more familiar with the higher education world than K-12.

After all, college access—not K-12 policy—has dominated the Democratic presidential primary. The Higher Education Act needs to be reauthorized, while the Every Student Succeeds Act is a done deal.

Oh, and ESSA sought to cut the next education secretary off at the knees on K-12, but the feds still have plenty of running room on college access.

Bonus: Picking someone from the higher ed world means not having to choose between the so-called two wings of the Democratic party on education (which many folks think of as the teachers’ unions vs. the education redesign community.)

So who might a higher ed-friendly education secretary be under a President Hillary Clinton? Folks have thrown out a bunch of names. Among them: Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system (and a former Secretary of Homeland Security, and governor of Arizona); Nancy Zimpher, the New York state higher education system system chancellor; Eduardo Padron, the president of Miami Dade Community College; and Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who chaired President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. (Hrabowski’s name showed up on this Whiteboard advisors survey, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.) But, basically, name a college president who has worked to boost college access outcomes for historically overlooked groups, and chances are, they’re on somebody’s speculation list, or wish list.


Another strong possibility: Clinton picks a governor, or a former governor. After all, it worked really well for her husband, whose choice, former South Carolina Gov. Richard W. Riley, had generally good relationships with folks from across the education spectrum.

A good list of governors to consider first are the ones that spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month. (Speaking at a convention is a pretty good indication of close ties to a campaign). Former governors might be especially good bets, because they wouldn’t have to leave their current gigs. Three former governors spoke at the DNC: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

O’Malley ran against Clinton in the primary, which probably doesn’t help his case. Dean though, ran against the No Child Left Behind Act and on his record of expanding early education as a presidential candidate in the 2004 cycle—two pretty good positions to take these days. And Granholm worked toward “free college"—a goal Clinton has embraced—as Michigan’s governor.

There could be some current governors in the mix too, including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who also spoke at the convention. And other observers—including Morning Education—have suggested Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who helped propel his state to a winning Race to the Top bid. (Does Markell’s work on Race to the Top help, or make him too “reformey” for the education organization crowd?)

K-12 People

So, say it’s not a higher ed person, and not a governor. Who in the K-12 world could it be?

A lot of folks are betting that Clinton would want to pick someone of color, a woman, or both, in part to help reach out to historically disadvantaged groups of kids and their communities. (U.S. Secretary of Education John King, who is black and Puerto Rican, has spoken a lot about his own background, as a child who was orphaned early, in explaining department policies aimed at educational equity.)

One K-12 leader to keep your eye on: Montana Superintendent Denise Juneau, a former teacher, who has earned respect for her efforts to serve rural students, including on Native American reservations. She’d bring a range of perspectives to the job as the first openly gay secretary of education and the first American Indian.

Even though she’s a Democrat, Juneau wasn’t afraid to buck the Obama administration on K-12 policy, which might actually be a selling point for her with educators who are worry Clinton will be too much like Obama on education policy. Under Juneau, Montana didn’t apply for a waiver from provisions of the NCLB law, in part because leaders there weren’t thrilled with the idea of tying teacher evaluations to tests. And when the department called for states to write plans for improving equitable teacher distribution, Juneau noted in her initial application that states have limited say in the matter, since personnel decisions tend to be local.

To be sure, Juneau is currently in the market for another job: She’s running for Montana’s sole congressional seat. But the race is firmly in the “Likely Republican” column, according to this respected ranking of races, so she may end up being available for the education secretary gig. Bonus: Her congressional run may mean that Democrats will owe her for making Montana’s House race even a teensy bit competitive.

Another suggestion: Kaya Henderson, who recently stepped down as chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public schools. She helped carry forward an agenda started by her controversial predecessor, Michelle Rhee, including performance pay, school closures, and nurturing the city’s charter sector. But she did it while maintaining good relations with the community and boosting student outcomes. Unions may not be super-enthused with her as a pick, though, given her connection to Rhee. And their support has been really key for Clinton.

Of course, there’s always the possibility Clinton would keep King on. He’s gotten great reviews from the education redesign wing of the party, but he’s also made waves with funding regulations for ESSA, which could make that retaining him tougher.

And earlier this year, two names that came up on a Whiteboard Advisors monthly survey, which often makes smart predictions: Linda Darling-Hammond, a noted researcher who recently left Stanford University, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Some folks are putting their money on one of them, and they could right.

My own guess, though, for what it’s worth? Probably not either of those two. Darling-Hammond, who has done deep thinking about the kind of broad-based accountability systems many states are seeking to create under ESSA, recently started her own think tank. She seems more apt to be tapped for another top, more policy-oriented job at the department, or, even more likely, to continue to be a key outside influencer, perhaps with even more sway, depending on the policy direction Clinton were to take.

I asked Weingarten about the education secretary gig earlier this year. And she made it very clear she likes her current job. But that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have a voice in policymaking—Clinton has already promised both national teachers’ unions a seat at the table, and Weingarten and Clinton have a personal relationship of their own.

Why didn’t we do this with Clinton’s GOP opponent, Donald Trump? We will give it a shot, at some point. But right now, given that Trump’s education policy is kind of nebulous it’s been hard for folks usually in the know to hazard a guess beyond Dr. Ben Carson, who was one of Trump’s primary opponents. The Republican nominee said during a debate that he looks to Carson for advice on K-12 issues.

Who else might be good for Trump? And who did we miss for Clinton? There are probably a lot of potential secretaries whose names weren’t in this post. Email us at or and tell us whose name should be in the mix.

Photo Credit: Denna Del Ciello for Education Week (top two), Associated Press.

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