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Obama’s USDOE: Appointed to Privatize. Period.

November 23, 2014

President Barack Obama pretends to be a friend of public education, but it just is not so. Sure, the White House offers a decorative promotional on K12 education; however, if one reads it closely, one sees that the Obama administration believes education (and, by extension, those educated) should serve the economy; that “higher standards and better assessments” and “turning around our lowest achieving schools” is No Child Left Behind (NCLB) leftover casserole, and that “keeping teachers in the classroom” can only elicit prolonged stares from those of us who know better.

All of these anti-public-education truths noted, the deeper story in what the Obama administration values regarding American education lay in its selection of US Department of Education (USDOE) appointees. Their backgrounds tell the story, and it isn’t a good one for the public school student, the community school and the career K12 teacher.

In this post, I examine the backgrounds and priorities of eight key USDOE appointees.  (Here is the complete USDOE list of senior officials, and here is the complete USDOE list of appointments.)

I just wanted a closer look. It’s what I do.

Of course, there is Obama appointee Arne Duncan, US secretary of education, who had his big education reformer break in 2001 when then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Paul Vallas had a falling out with then-Mayor Richard Daley. Duncan had been playing professional basketball in Australia until 1991 then decided to return home to Chicago. A childhood friend, John W. Rogers, Jr., gave Duncan the job of “director” of the Ariel Education Initiative (AEI) and education based upon an “investment curriculum” modeled after the stock market. What Duncan actually did in his AEI “director” role is a mystery. However, in 2001, CPS being under mayoral control, Mayor Daley appointed Duncan as CPS CEO, a role in which Duncan served until 2008. (Documented in my book, A Chronicle of Echoes.)

To read Duncan’s USDOE bio, one would think that Duncan’s focus on standardized test scores and on closing traditional public schools and opening charters created a Utopian, market-driven CPS. However, if such were true, there would have been no reason for another Obama pal and former Obama admin chief of staff, current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to slaughter CPS in the name of “reform.”

It seems that what Duncan had to most recommend him to Obama is Duncan’s willingness to do what the President requires.

Emma Vadhera, Duncan’s chief of staff, was formerly in charter management for Uncommon Schools. Prior to that, she was in USDOE as deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development under Common Core State Standards (CCSS) clueless promoter, Carmel Martin, former assistant secretary at the U.S Department of Education in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development who “debated” in favor of CCSS in New York in September 2014 but did not even know CCSS was copyrighted.

Massie Ritsch, acting assistant secretary for communications and outreach, but who is leaving USDOE to help the glorified teacher temp agency, Teach for America (TFA) with (as Ritsch tweeted) the “vital work” of (in a Ritsch email) “communications, marketing, research and strategic partnerships.” TFA is trying to get complete control over its public image, which is suffering from exposure of its illusive success. Ritsch was previously USDOE’s deputy assistant secretary for external affairs and outreach, a position in which he directed “outreach to stakeholders, including education trade associations and the business community.” That’s what America needs: More business “stakeholder” involvement driving the American classroom.

Ritsch is to be replaced by USDOE Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communications Development Jonathan Schorr, whose background includes being a NewSchools Venture Fund “partner” in San Francisco and “director of new initiatives” for KIPP charter schools (KIPP was founded by TFA alums.)

Obama appointee Jim Shelton, deputy secretary of education, has previous connections to the Gates Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund (whose current CEO, Stacey Childress, was also with the Gates Foundation), and McKinsey and Company. (Lots of ed reform folks originate with McKinsey and Company, including CCSS “lead architect” David Coleman, numerous individuals at the online education site, Khan Academy, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Read here for more info on McKinsey’s influence on public education.)

Tyra Mariani, chief of staff, office of the deputy secretary, is one of Eli Broad’s “academy trained” education reform-promoting “graduates.” She ended up in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in 2003, the time that Duncan was CPS CEO (and the same time that CPS happened to be doing business with David Coleman’s assessment company, Grow Network). Prior to her appointment at USDOE, Mariani was executive director of test-score-focused New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS) in New Orleans.  (The NLNS executive board has both McKinsey and TFA connections.) When Mariani was appointed to USDOE in 2001, she was congratulated by the corporate-reform-promoting PR group, the K12 Search Group, Inc.

Nadya Chinoy Dabby, assistant deputy secretary, Office of Innovation and Improvement, is a former Broad Foundation investment advisor.

One more.

Obama appointee Ted Mitchell, under secretary of education, is the former CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund. In an article entitled, Ted Mitchell, Education Department Nominee, Has Strong Ties to Pearson, Privatization Movement, The Nation writer Lee Fang notes:

[Mitchell’s] ethics disclosure form shows that he was paid $735,300 for his role at NewSchools, which is organized as a non-profit. In recent years, he has served or is currently serving as a director to New Leaders, Khan Academy, California Education Partners, Teach Channel, ConnectED, Hameetman Foundation, the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Silicon Schools, Children Now, Bellwether Partners, Pivot Learning Partners, EnCorps Teacher Training Program, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Green DOT Public Schools.

In addition, Mitchell serves as an adviser to Salmon River Capital, a venture capital firm that specializes in education companies. Mitchell sits on the board of Parchment, an academic transcript start-up that is among Salmon River Capital’s portfolio.

Salmon River Capital helped create one of the biggest names in for-profit secondary education, Capella University. …

Update: After publication of this blog post, Mitchell e-mailed a statement noting that he could not comment on gainful employment regulations because he is in the “midst of a confirmation process.” He added that he is on “an informal advisory Board for Salmon” and that Pearson sponsored a summit for his organization in May. 

Well. There we have it. Eight fine Obama-serving individuals in key USDOE positions whose priorities (and professional experience) lay far and away from the traditional American classroom but who have been appointed to carry out the work of condemning and supplanting the traditional K12 American classroom with profitable “ventures” and disposable teachers by relentlessly testing the traditional classroom, collecting unprecedented amounts of data on it; labeling it a failure; replacing it with under-regulated, philanthropic-padded, market-driven “reform” that is also supposed to channel students to serve the market, and all the while adding the USDOE padding to their corporate-favoring resumes and advancing their own careers in the process.

Have I missed anything?

obama duncan


Schneider is also author of the ed reform whistleblower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education

previti chronicle pic

  1. JRB permalink

    “Have I missed anything?” Only the notorious Obama appointee, Kevin Jennings (safe schools czar). Kind of says it all.

    • Jennings left USDOE in 2011. I cannot cover them all.

      The “have I missed anything” referred to the privatization summary immediately preceding the question.

  2. I thank you for the clarity. I have never been so severely disappointed in a political leader for whom I voted.

  3. Thanks for the post, Mercedes.

    It cannot be more clear that the vision held for public schools by those making federal policy is pretty much in direct opposition to virtually everyone I have ever worked with IN public schools.

  4. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Excellent work that I have not seen in such detail anywhere. The exclusion of educators has been there from the get-go. There are also some very young White House appointees who are given an inside view of USDE architecture. One TFAer there… I think I was then looking at the so-called RESPECT initiative that McKinsey&Co prepared for Arne to act on, marketing a career ladder with no job guarantee, longer work days, shorter vacations, more responsibility –like a class of 100 with computers and some helpers.

    The USDE plan was to talk this up nationally, tapping as many willing teachers as possible to attend a scripted Q and A session in their hometown–sort of the “teacher voice group” seeding the idea that teachers really want the plan, all grassrooty.
    Special perks for teachers to be in the orbit of a “White House” initiative. There was a deliberate effort to hustle National Board Certified Teachers to get the “conversation” going. Find it all with RESPECT (all caps) and USDE. Lurking there is the McKinsey& Co. draft with the reference to TopTalent, and that vanishes in a lightly edited and graphically. those were dowloadable pdfs. Alo see my comments on the personalized learning bit in two places today with Diane Ravitch’s USDE is promoting “personalized learning” a gift to on-line for profit companies.

  5. Ken permalink

    Mercedes – – Well-stated and well done! “Thank you” again for looking out for the “Best Interests” of our Children, and by de Facto, our country! I have so much gratitude for you Teachers on the Front-Line. And, although I realize that you “Have miles to go before you sleep”, do have a healthy and happy Thanksgiving. And finally, you have some “Mercedes Fun Time!” Wishing you all the best.

  6. Devastating and essential reading. I too voted for Obama, and have now left the Democratic party altogether thanks to his utter betrayal of public education. I’m glad he’s entered lame-duck status before he could have Arne train his sights on higher education (I am a professor at a public university). But the presence of writers like you, Yong Zhao, Alfie Kohn, DIane Ravitch — our country doesn’t lack for phenomenal talent in the art of education — gives me hope. It’s a tall order to penetrate the continuous fog of propaganda emanating from the “reformers,” but the truth will out, and increasingly widespread opposition to the instruments of this “reform” — high-stakes testing and the Common Core — means we as a society might be waking up from this nightmare, as we did from, say, McCarthyism. Here’s hoping.

    • Interesting. I left the Republican party over education. Not that I voted for Obama or see a shred of redeeming value in his education policies, but I am dismayed to find the GOP leadership in both chambers pushing hard to pass ESEA reauthorization essentially replacing NCLB with Common Core cartel product shoved down our throats. Maybe the disenfranchised multitudes between both parties should unify on this. I am for students and teachers, against foreign multinational ed conglomerates aligned with wealthy software companies, progressive ed agenda outfits and the federal government. I am for local control of education, against illegal national standards from USDOE. I am for educational excellence, not mediocre standards to turn out worker drones and eternal entry level fodder for corporate profits. Common Ground on Common Core (Kirsten Lombard) may be worth your time to read if you agree.

      There is hope Jeff. Washington State Dems – Bill Gates country – just came out blasting Common Core. If we can look across the political divide and get past labels, maybe we can begin to discover our common interests can be served better by our unity than by our hate-mongering from our entrenched political foxholes where it seems we are meant by design to be.

      In necessariis unitas.

  7. Mercedes, are you familiar with the work of David J. Blacker? If so, I would be very interested in your thoughts on his treatment of some of the central themes of your own work. If not, I would highly recommend his book.

  8. Jon Lubar permalink

    I had read that Obama was heavily lobbied shortly after the 08′ election to choose anybody but Linda Darling-Hammond for Sec. of Ed. She was on his education transition team, if I recall correctly. The question remains, who were the lobbyists? Who had that kind of acces and how did they get it? It may well be a mute point now, but would add a key bit of information to what we already know about the toxic disaster called “reform”.

  9. donald eismann permalink

    I am a bit behind in my email so just read this post. This was one of the most depressing pieces I have read in a while. I did not realize how total was the privateers control of USDOE and what is left of “public education.” Thank you for your tireless and relentless work flushing out information like this. You have replaced Dr. Bracy (RIP) as my go to person to ferret out the truth.

  10. Jackie Atchison permalink

    Thanks for the list! Here are a few more names on his current list of appointees with ties to the privatization movement: Joseph Walsh, Ashley Bittner, Ursula Wright

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 2014 Medley #25 | Live Long and Prosper
  2. Mercedes Schneider: Is There Anyone in the U. S. Department of Education Who Believes in Public Education? | Diane Ravitch's blog
  3. Mercedes Schneider: “President Barack Obama pretends to be a friend of public education, but it just is not so.” » United Teachers of Northport
  4. The Common Core Weekend Reads – 11-30-14 | Lady Liberty 1885
  5. The ‘Goldmanization’ of the Department of Education | Mike the Mad Biologist

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