Denver superintendent mentioned for Obama cabinet
December 9, 2008
DENVER ” A lawyer-turned-educator known for getting teachers to support merit pay, Denver schools superintendent Michael Bennet may be a candidate to lead the U.S. Department of Education under President-elect Barack Obama, according to a published report.
Bennet, Denver’s superintendent since 2005, won national attention for reforming a pay-for-performance teaching plan to boost incoming teachers’ salaries and increase bonuses for teachers who take tough assignments. His changes increased teacher support for the plan.
Newsweek magazine columnist Jonathan Alter, an Obama chronicler who broke the news that the Illinois senator would run for president, wrote in a column published this week that Bennet, 43, is a top candidate to become Obama’s education secretary.
The report comes as little surprise to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who tapped the Yale-educated lawyer to become his chief of staff in 2003. Two years later, when the top schools job opened for the 150-school city system, Hickenlooper encouraged Bennet to apply.
“He has the unique combination of experience and talent that makes people recognize him as someone who could run a large, complex, critically important organization,” Hickenlooper said.
Bennet himself has not responded to press inquiries about a possible Obama appointment. However, after Obama’s election, Bennet heaped praise on the president-elect’s plan to expand merit pay nationwide.
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Obama, Bennet told the Rocky Mountain News last month, “is in a wonderful position to give everybody who cares about education reform, which is everybody, permission to think about our work differently.”
Bennet came to education after successful careers in law and business, putting him among a short list of prominent big-city reformers with pasts in other fields. Other candidates mentioned by Alter were New York City Superintendent Joel Klein, a former Justice Department lawyer, and Paul Vallas, a school-choice advocate and superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans who once ran unsuccessfully for governor of Illinois.
One observer said Bennet’s education philosophy segues with Obama’s.
“Michael’s a really smart, thoughtful guy who took on a big challenge trying to revitalize an urban school district, and there aren’t too many examples of that succeeding across the country, just because it’s so hard,” said Paul Teske, dean of public policy at the University of Colorado-Denver.
Teske studies Denver Public Schools and says Bennet’s changes to a merit pay plan called ProComp helped warm teachers who historically met merit-pay reforms with skepticism.
Bennet raised pay for starting teachers from $35,000 to $42,000 and increased bonuses for teachers whose students posted gains. Teske said Bennet’s appointment would make sense for Obama, who clashed at times with teachers’ unions during the Democratic primary campaign because of his support for performance pay.
“Within education there’s this kind of tension within the Democratic Party, which is: Do you do what the teachers’ unions want done, because they’re such strong supporters of the Democratic Party? Or do you go for reform that the teachers might not like so much?” Teske said.
The Denver Classroom Teachers Association praised Bennet Tuesday for his ability to bridge calls for change with teachers’ interests.
“He is always accessible and willing to talk, even when we have different viewpoints on an issue,” union president Kim Ursetta said in a statement.
There was no word from Obama’s transition team on when a choice would be announced. Any pick would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Hickenlooper said that a Bennet appointment could signal Obama wants to expand the public’s involvement in public education. In Denver, the mayor said, Bennet has brought to the education reform debate nonprofits and businesses that didn’t meddle before.
“There’s a much greater sense that it’s not just up to the school board,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s up to all of us.”