Who should be the next U.S. Secretary of Education?

Among national education leaders, Schools CEO Arne Duncan emerged as a leading contender for the job should Sen. Barack Obama win the Nov. 4 presidential election. While Duncan has previously said in interviews that he has no interest in leaving his current post, he has already served twice as long as the average urban superintendent and is an education adviser (and friend) to Obama, so the time may be ripe for him to make the leap onto the national stage.

On the Republican side, conservative favorite Lisa Graham Keegan, who spoke at the GOP convention and is Sen. John McCain’s chief spokesperson on education, is a top contender. Like McCain, she is from Arizona, where she served as state superintendent of public instruction.

Here are the leading contenders, including two “wild card” picks that could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans and shake up the status quo.

Jonathan Schnur, Linda Darling-Hammond, Janet Napolitano, Arne Duncan, Lisa Graham Keegan, Tim Pawlenty, Jane Swift, Mike Huckabee, Joel Klein, Cory Booker.


Jonathan Schnur, New York City
Focus on leadership

Who is he? Schnur is chief executive officer and co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, a national nonprofit based in New York that recruits and trains principals for urban districts, including Chicago. He is an adviser to the Obama campaign.

Why him? Schnur is part of a generation of young, highly educated reformers who have started nonprofits to work with – and challenge – the education establishment. New Leaders is a well-regarded program that has earned national recognition.

What would be his top priorities? He has advocated for more time and resources for low-income children and to close the achievement gap. He supports initiatives such as charter schools and better training for teachers and principals.

Bio:  A Princeton graduate who grew up in suburban Milwaukee, Schnur spent six years in former President Bill Clinton’s administration as a policy adviser on K-12 education and worked for Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. After Gore’s failed presidential bid, Schnur headed to Harvard Business School. He once said that the federal government was “too clumsy to drive the kind of change I was interested in.” At Harvard, he and two classmates developed a business plan for a national nonprofit that would invest in and train principals. In June 2000, they launched New Leaders for New Schools. Today, more than 400 principals trained by the group work in nine school districts nationwide.
Schnur has said that New Leaders is helping to fill the shortage of principals and to upgrade requirements and training for the increasingly demanding job. Critics, including unions, have said that New Leaders’ graduates are allowed to leapfrog over their competitors for jobs and are being groomed too quickly.

Linda Darling-Hammond, Palo Alto, Calif.
Quality teaching first

Who is she? Darling-Hammond is an education professor at Stanford University, former executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future and an adviser to the Obama campaign.

Why her? She is considered one of the country’s most influential people on education policy. A panel that she chaired produced a report in 1996 that found many teachers lacked qualifications for their jobs, particularly in schools with low-income and minority students; training programs were outdated or inadequate; and schools were failing to recruit and retain quality teachers. The study helped spur changes to improve teacher training and education.

What would be her priorities? Most of Darling-Hammond’s career has focused on urging policymakers to raise the quality of teachers hired, professionalize the occupation by increasing salaries and offer intensive mentoring and extended residencies for new teachers. She has said that reform efforts cannot succeed without good teachers.

Bio: A former public school teacher, she is a leading researcher on how improving teacher quality helps student achievement, particularly for low-income children. A Yale graduate who earned her doctorate at Temple University, she has taught at Stanford since 1998. She led the redesign of Stanford’s Teacher Education Program to better prepare teachers to work in schools with diverse student populations. She and other professors helped found a charter school in Palo Alto, and she serves as vice president of the Stanford nonprofit that runs the school. Some education reformers have criticized her negative assessment of Teach for America, a popular program that puts recent college graduates in struggling schools after a few weeks of training. Darling-Hammond has said that no matter how bright and enthusiastic, a beginning teacher needs to have extensive training and certification. In 2005, she led a study that concluded certified teachers consistently produced stronger student achievement than Teach for America recruits in Houston.

Janet Napolitano, Phoenix, Ariz.
Trailblazer, education advocate

Who is she? Napolitano is the Democratic governor of Arizona, serving her second and final term. She is the former chair of the National Governors Association, the first woman in that position.

Why her? One of her top achievements as governor has been winning increased funding for education. She already has a national profile, and her name was floated as a possible vice presidential candidate for Obama.

What would be her priorities? She has advocated for early childhood education, full-day kindergarten and pay raises for teachers. Her agenda as the chair of the National Governors Association urged states to improve math and science instruction in high schools and to use higher education to drive economic growth.

Bio:  A University of Virginia law school graduate, she has spent her entire career in Arizona, beginning with a clerkship for a U.S. Appeals Court judge in Phoenix. President Clinton nominated her as U.S. attorney for the Arizona district, and in 1998, she was elected state attorney general, the first woman to hold that job. In 2002, she became governor after a close race. She easily won a second term and was even endorsed in a letter signed by 1,000 Republican leaders who touted her leadership and said that “education is not a political issue.” Napolitano has clashed with the Republican-dominated legislature and was called “Governor No” because of her frequent vetoes. Several of her education proposals were killed during this year’s legislative session, including raising the high-school dropout age to 18 from 16 and freezing in-state college tuition during a student’s years at a school—for instance, students who start as freshmen would pay the same tuition through their senior year.

Arne Duncan, Chicago
Pushing a schools renaissance

Who is he? Duncan is CEO of Chicago Public Schools and an adviser on education issues to the Obama campaign.

Why him? As head of the third-largest school district in the country, he has achieved some success in turning around schools. Test scores for elementary students have improved for the past seven years. His long tenure is unusual, since many urban school superintendents leave after just two to three years.

What would be his priorities? He has championed smaller, neighborhood schools, early childhood education, better training and support for teachers and principals, and public-private partnerships for schools. In leading a long-struggling urban district, he is sensitive to issues such as how poverty affects student achievement. 

Bio: A Harvard graduate, Duncan grew up in Hyde Park and attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. While playing professional basketball in Australia for three years, he worked with children who were wards of the state. In 1992, he returned to Chicago to direct the Ariel Education Initiative, which works to advance educational opportunities for low-income children on the city’s South Side. He joined CPS in 1998 and served as deputy chief of staff before being appointed CEO by Mayor Richard M. Daley. Duncan is in the midst of implementing the mayor-backed Renaissance 2010, an ambitious plan to create 100 new schools, including charters and magnets. Low-performing schools have been closed and reopened with new staff and revamped curriculum. The changes have been praised by people who think that urban education has to be reinvented to yield dramatic improvements. But critics, including the teachers’ union, have said that Duncan and Daley are closing schools that were working, moving too quickly to allow time for student improvement and ignoring input from residents.


Lisa Graham Keegan, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Promoting a market approach

Who is she? Graham Keegan is a senior adviser to the McCain campaign, former Arizona superintendent of public instruction and former CEO of Education Leaders Council, a nonprofit education reform group.

Why her? With a high profile among conservatives, she was on the short list of President George W. Bush’s candidates for education secretary in 2001. She has long been one of McCain’s closest advisers on education issues.

What would be her priorities? As Arizona’s schools chief for six years in the late 1990s, she led a major expansion of charter schools and standardized testing. She has a market-driven approach to education and believes that parents should make the ultimate decision about their child’s schooling.

Bio:  A one-time speech pathologist, Graham Keegan began working on education policy issues as a state legislator and in 1994, was elected to the first of two terms as Arizona’s state schools superintendent. After helping to create a controversial test that set tougher academic standards for high school graduation, she took the entire test herself and posted her passing scores. Keegan, who has a master’s degree in communication disorders from Arizona State University, has served on education policy teams for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Soon after she joined the Education Leaders Council in 2001, the group amassed more than $33 million in federal grants for a program to help states and school districts meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The group came under fire after news reports in 2003 questioned its financial management. Graham Keegan resigned in 2004. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Education charged that the council wasn’t fully complying with federal regulations for spending. However, after subsequent audits, grant funding was eventually restored.

Timothy Pawlenty, St. Paul, Minn.
Scrap tenure for merit pay

Who is he? Pawlenty, a Republican governor of Minnesota serving his second term, is chair of Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that includes policymakers and education leaders.

Why him? He gained a national profile through initiatives such as a merit pay program for teachers that links compensation to student performance. A longtime supporter of McCain, he was frequently mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate.

What would be his priorities? Pawlenty has favored more funding for schools, tied to accountability for student progress. In advocating merit pay for teachers, he said the seniority system is out-of-date. He won increased funding for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs and raised academic requirements in schools.

Bio:  The youngest of five children growing up in South St. Paul, Minn., he was the only child in his family to graduate from college. A graduate of the University of Minnesota law school, he was a practicing attorney in the private sector before serving as a city councilmember and in the Minnesota House of Representatives. He was one of the few Republicans to win re-election in 2006, when the Democrats swept most competitive races nationwide. Pawlenty has proposed bold changes such as reforming high schools and developing a more rigorous curriculum, but often has not been able to follow through. Critics say that he is more interested in grabbing headlines, but others say that he has been stymied by a tight budget and legislators’ refusal to raise taxes. He has clashed with Republican legislators, who have called him a spendthrift.

Jane Swift, Williamstown, Mass.
Tougher standards 

Who is she? Swift is former governor of Massachusetts and an adviser on education issues to the McCain campaign.

Why her? She has made education a focus since her time as a state legislator. After leaving the governor’s office in 2003, she founded a consulting company that works with for-profit education businesses. She is an active member of the Parent-Teacher Organization at the elementary school attended by her three daughters.

What would be her priorities? She has advocated tougher assessment standards for students and teachers, early childhood education and adult education and training. As a state legislator, she helped draft Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act to give more funding to poorer schools and require additional accountability.

Bio: At the age of 25, she was the youngest woman ever elected to the Massachusetts State Senate. A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., she grew up in a politically active Republican family. After serving as lieutenant governor, she got the top job in 2001 when her predecessor resigned to become ambassador to Canada. She was the state’s first female governor, serving during tough budget years and becoming unpopular for vetoes and program cuts. The first governor in U.S. history to give birth in office, she was criticized for using a state helicopter to ferry from Boston to her home across the state and for using volunteer aides to babysit. State Republicans abandoned her in favor of Mitt Romney for the 2002 election, and she left politics. She has re-emerged this year, and has been particularly visible in her defense of vice- presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Mike Huckabee, North Little Rock, Ark.
Education for national security

Who is he? The former Republican governor of Arkansas, Huckabee finished second in this year’s Republican presidential primaries

Why him? He made education a major focus on his platform, calling it a “national security issue.”  He is the only Republican presidential candidate in history to speak to the National Education Association during its convention, earning four standing ovations.  He advocated arts education while chair of the Education Commission of the States.

What would be his priorities? He supports merit pay for teachers and renewal of No Child Left Behind, provided it allows states to set their own benchmarks and gives flexibility for some schools such as those with a high population of non-English speakers. He supports the expansion of charter schools, but opposes state-funded vouchers that would allow parents to pay tuition at private and parochial schools, saying it would undermine public education.

Bio:  The first in his family to finish high school, he graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas and worked as a pastor before getting into politics. He became governor in 1996 after his predecessor resigned in an ethics scandal. He was elected to two subsequent terms, serving until 2007. After being diagnosed with diabetes in 2003, he made national headlines when he lost 110 pounds and began running marathons. He brought attention to the issue of childhood obesity and signed a state law mandating annual body mass index measurements for all public school students. When the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the state wasn’t adequately funding schools, Huckabee denounced the decision. However, he subsequently help push through the biggest tax increase in Arkansas history — $380 million per year – to pay for school improvements. As governor, he was under investigation for several ethics disputes for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in gifts. He has said that there should not be limits on gifts to public officials unless there is evidence of bribery.


Joel I. Klein, New York City
Prosecutor, businessman, chancellor

Who is he?  Klein is chancellor of New York City schools, the largest system in the country, with more than 1.1 million students.

Why him? As chancellor since 2002, Klein has presided over a rise in math test scores, a narrowing of the achievement gap and the creation of dozens of small high schools that have posted better graduation rates. He brings successful experience from business and law. Prior to becoming chancellor, he was CEO of Bertelsmann, Inc., an international media company. In the Clinton Administration, he served as deputy counsel and later, assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice.

What would his priorities be? The longest-serving schools chancellor in New York history, he has increased the number of charter schools, divided large schools into smaller schools and advocated greater accountability. This year, cash incentives are being offered to students, teachers and principals based on performance on test scores. He has said that good public education services should not be monopolized by the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle classes.

Bio:  A native New Yorker from a working-class family, Klein has said that he was grateful for his public school education. While at Harvard Law School, he took a leave of absence to study at New York University’s School of Education and taught 6th-grade math in Queens. He worked as a lawyer in private practice before joining the Clinton Administration in 1993. He is best known for leading the government prosecution in the antitrust case involving Microsoft. His appointment as chancellor was a surprise choice meant to shake up the status quo. Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a former Republican turned Independent), who had gained control over the city’s low-performing school system, said that someone who had been successful in the corporate world would do a better job as chancellor than a traditional educator. Klein has clashed with the teachers union as he has tried to tie tenure decisions to their students’ test scores. Teachers and parents have said that there is too much emphasis on testing and too many constant changes and restructuring. Math and reading scores have risen since 2002, however.

Cory Booker, Newark, N.J.
Unlikely voucher proponent

Who is he? Booker is the Democratic mayor for Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, since 2006.

Why him? He has earned some success as mayor by improving Newark’s crime rate through increased police presence on streets and drafting new campaign finance laws to undermine entrenched corruption in city government. Many of his achievements have focused on children, including a $40 million public-private partnership to transform the city’s parks and playgrounds, summer jobs for at-risk youth and expanded outreach for child immunizations.

What would be his priorities? He has described his model school system as one that embraces innovation and experimentation, public-private partnerships and specialized schools, including charters.  He is one of the few high-profile Democrats who have voiced support for vouchers and school choice, saying that they could make a difference to low-income families whose children are not being served by the current system. However, he says that vouchers should not be used as an excuse to pull funding from public schools.

Bio: A Rhodes Scholar and Yale School Law graduate, Booker worked as an attorney for the Urban Justice Center in New York before starting his political career as a Newark council member. When he ran in 2002 against Newark’s long-time mayor, Sharpe James, for the office, he faced a nasty fight in which he was branded a suburban carpetbagger who was “not black enough” to understand the city. Booker lost by a narrow margin, but came back in 2006 to handily defeat Sharpe’s handpicked successor. As mayor, he has clashed frequently with the teachers union over his efforts to expand charter schools and support of vouchers. Opponents have called him a proxy for “ultra-white, ultra-conservative” outsiders. Booker has since downplayed his views on vouchers, saying that it is not a main item on his agenda for school reform.  Although Booker has said he would run for a second term in 2010, some speculate that given his frustrations with trying to lead reform in Newark, he may join an Obama administration.

Phuong Ly is a freelance writer.

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