November 13, 2008
Wendy Kopp, the hard-driving founder of Teach For America, and Arne Duncan, the superintendent of schools in Chicago, are being touted as top candidates for U.S. Education Secretary by an influential lobbying group that pushes for aggressive changes in American schools. Their names are included in a 34-page transition memo to President-elect Barack Obama prepared by the group, Democrats for Education Reform, and obtained by GothamSchools.
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has received support from DFER, which is based in Manhattan, but the group’s memo specifically rules him out as a possible Education Secretary. The memo says Klein’s aggressive efforts to improve public schools are admirable, but that they make him and the like-minded D.C. school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, a poor choice for Barack Obama’s White House. “The need for them to occasionally ‘break some china’ in order to affect much-needed change puts them and other hard-charging reforms like them in an unlikely spot to be selected for a role like Secretary of Education (a role for which either would be well suited),” the memo says.
The memo also elevates the New York-based education leader Jon Schnur, who co-chaired Obama’s education advisory board during his campaign, as another choice for a top administration position. Schnur founded the group New Leaders for New Schools, a kind of Teach For America for principals that is based in Manhattan. He is also the leader of the movement we’ve been trying to name on this site.
What the Democrats for Education Reform group recommends will not necessarily be adopted, but the group’s recommendations will surely be taken seriously. Members of the group’s advisory board were donors to Obama’s campaign, and the group has worked with Schnur, who is serving on Obama’s transition team. Yet the group is also firmly on one side of the ongoing divide inside of the Democratic Party over education issues, and even its own members may not know which side President-elect Obama will take in that fight.
The memo is the first time Wendy Kopp’s name has been mentioned as a possible U.S. Education Secretary. Democrats for Education Reform offer her as a second choice behind Duncan, the superintendent of schools in Chicago, saying that either she or Jon Schnur would make good choices “if Duncan was unable/unwilling.”
Kopp created Teach For America out of an idea born in her senior thesis at Princeton University. The group has since been credited with transforming American education by recruiting college graduates with Ivy League pedigrees into some of the worst-performing public schools in America. The Democrats for Education Reform memo describes Kopp’s work as inspirational. “At a time when the popularity of the public education franchise was suffering, Kopp’s leadership ushered an optimistic breeze of reform and has created an entire army ready to fight to save and improve public education,” the memo says.