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Who Will Be Obama's Secretary of Education?: The President-Elect's Front-Runners

Here is our A-list of contenders.
December 5, 2008

Barack Obama promised a lot when he vowed to improve America's public schools -- namely, an $18 billion overhaul of the system. The question buzzing around Washington, DC, today is, who will Obama choose to lead this ambitious charge? Our sources say his A-list includes the following people:

Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools

Duncan, who joined the Chicago school system in 1998 and became CEO in 2001, has been busy reforming it since then, implementing strategies to transform weak schools and close those that are beyond saving, and he is a big charter-school proponent. Duncan spoke with Edutopia about Chicago's after-school program in this video; watch another Edutopia interview with him. Photo credit: Illinois Family Institute


Joel I. Klein, New York City schools chancellor

Klein's successes in New York City include the expansion of small schools and charter schools. His reform program, Children First, has taken on a huge and troubled public school system. Klein formerly served as deputy counsel to former president Clinton. Photo credit: New York Observer


James Hunt, former governor of North Carolina

Hunt homed in on early-childhood education during his gubernatorial terms, making educating low-income and minority children a priority and focusing on improving teacher quality and using technology in the classroom. In a 2002 interview with Edutopia, he called technology "the teacher's best friend." He also served on current U.S. education secretary Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Photo credit: Courtesy of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy


Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor

Darling-Hammond, Obama's leading education adviser, codirects Stanford's School Redesign Network, which pursues and promotes research to improve secondary schools. Though her stance in favor of merit pay over teacher tenure has drawn some fire, she has been the force behind Obama's positions on school restructuring, teacher quality, and high-quality education for all students. When Edutopia spoke to Darling-Hammond last year, she discussed the benefits of social and emotional learning. She also cowrote an article about project learning. Photo credit: School Redesign Network



Some prominent dark horses are also under consideration:

Colin Powell, first secretary of state under George W. Bush: Powell founded America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the country's high-school-dropout crisis.

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Inez Tenenbaum, former state schools chief in South Carolina: Tenenbaum pushed through reform initiatives to improve accountability and literacy in her state.

Roy Barnes, former governor of Georgia: This controversial governor attempted to end teacher tenure.

Andrew J. Rotherham, adviser to Obama: Rotherham, in addition to cofounding Education Sector, launched the Progressive Policy Institute's 21st Century Schools Project, which focuses on fixing systemic inequalities in education and redesigning the U.S. education system.

Jonathan Schnur, chief executive of New Leaders for New Schools: Schnur, who leads an effort to recruit and train urban-school principals, was a policy adviser on K-12 education in the Clinton administration for seven years.

Robert E. Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education: Wise promotes changing high schools so that every student graduates prepared for a postsecondary education.

Michael Cohen, president of Achieve: Cohen held several senior education positions in the Clinton administration.

Paul G. Vallas, superintendent of the Recovery School District of New Orleans: Vallas, after reforming schools in Chicago as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, was tapped as CEO for the RSD, a school system designed to transform underperforming schools into successful places for children to learn.

Diane Shust, director of government relations at the National Education Association: Shust previously served as the NEA's manager of federal relations, directing lobbyists working on behalf of the organization's 2.7 million members on issues such as education, child advocacy, health care, and social security.

Lauren Smith, a freelance writer for education-focused publications, has reported for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Bangor Daily News, and the Scripps Howard News Service.