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December 8, 2008

As President-Elect Obama continues the roll-out of his high-profile cabinet, the education reform world--and then some--is waiting with bated breath to see who he will tab as the ninth Secretary of Education in United States history.

Just how closely are people paying attention to the choice? Quite a bit more than you might think: editorials and articles on the question of who the President-elect will choose have appeared, all within the past week, in the Associated Press, Newsweek (twice!) Washington Post, NY Times, LA Times, Denver Post, and the Huffington Post--and that's just a partial list!

Why is it so important? We are talking about the Secretary of Education here, not the Secretary of State or Defense, where headliners like Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates have been chosen by the Obama transition team, the former notable for her 18 million primary votes and the latter because he's a Republican who has served at the pleasure of outgoing President George W. Bush. In fact, I'd put a good wager that most readers would have a hard time naming more than two or three of the eight Education Secretaries our nation has had since the cabinet post was first created in 1979. (Give up? Check the answer list at the bottom of this entry)

So why are so many people paying such close attention to Obama's choice? Partly, one can only hope, it is because observers recognize just how important education reform is to the long-term health of our economy; indeed one could plausibly argue that if the $700 billion TARP bailout plan is Congress's attempt at a band-aid for our nation's economic outlook, the underlying cure can only come in the form of drastic improvement of our K-12 schools and institutions of higher education.

But more significantly, people are setting odds on Obama's Sec Ed choice because who he chooses will tell us far more about what kinds of policy changes and priorities to expect from the Obama administration than anything he has actually said in his life as a politician thus far. The reality is, candidate Obama had his cake and ate it too on the tough issues of education reform, supporting controversial plans like merit pay for teachers and school choice to the delight of reformers (or "disrupters", as chairman of the House education committee George Miller approvingly refers to them); while at the same time appointing pro-Union, establishment Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond to chair his education transition team--a choice that caused near-panic among some die-hard members of the disrupter camp. (N.B. Rep. Miller refers to the latter group as "incrementalists" who support a slower, more measured pace of change in schools.)

The consensus is Washington is that if President-elect Obama chooses a reformer, it will be a powerful signal that the power of teachers unions over the Democratic party is over, and that the accountability systems ushered in under No Child Left Behind will be here to stay, at least in principle. But if he chooses a secretary from the education establishment, we're likely to see the same proposals that haven't done much good for children over the past few decades: protecting teacher tenure; opposing school choice for children in our lowest-performing schools; relying on schools of education to certify teachers; and increasing teacher pay at the discretion of union negotiators, regardless of student achievement.

So who are the leading candidates, at least in the eyes of the pundits? Here's a list along with odds that I'm setting (for recreational purposes only):

Arne Duncan (3:1) - One of the best compromise candidates available who would please both parties, Duncan has a successful record of reform as CEO of Chicago Public Schools but who has not made enemies with the unions in the process. Duncan also has the benefit of being a friend of Mr. Obama's from Harvard, and he has joined Mr. Obama on the basketball court from time-to-time.
Paul Vallas (15:1) - former Chicago and Philadelphia superintendent of schools and currently superintendent in New Orleans. Reform-minded and with a great deal of experience.
Michael Bennett (15:1) - a more controversial pick, Bennett is best known for his stewardship of the Denver Public Schools, which recently approved a teacher pay-for-performance plan that many of the teachers love even if the union dislikes it.
Joel Klein (10:1) - lightning rod reformer of New York City schools who is widely disliked by union types. His selection would be a major affront to the NEA and AFT, and a major victory for reformers.
John Schnur (50:1) - one of President Obama's chief education advisors during the campaign, Schnur is the head of New Leaders for New Schools and a widely respected thinker on education issues.
Linds Darling-Hammond (20:1) - the controversial Stanford professor who is the chair of the transition team on education. Her selection would please the powerful teachers unions but could incite a revolt among progressive education thinkers in the Obama camp.
Inez Tenenbaum (10:1) - former State Superintendent of Schools in South Carolina, Tenenbaum would be a favored choice among the incrementalist camp.
Some unnamed Governor (10:1)
Bill Gates (1000:1) - a long-shot, but a man who has shown tremendous interest in education policy issues through his foundation with a strong reform-minded angle.
Other (10:1) - possible short-list candidates include reformers Andy Rotherham, Kati Haycock, Michelle Rhee, Michael Johnston.

List of US Secretaries of Education in reverse chronological order: Margaret Spellings (2005 - present), Rod Paige (2001 - 2005), Richard Riley (1993 - 2001), Lamar Alexander (1991 - 1993), Lauro Cavazos (1988 - 1990), Bill Bennett (1985 - 1988), Terrel Bell (1981 - 1985), Shirley Hufstedler (1979 - 1981).


Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.


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