12/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Secretary Who Matters

With all of this week's speculation about Secretary of State, I think it's even more interesting and potentially as important to think about the next Secretary of Education.

Despite substantial foundation investment, education hardly even registered during the two year presidential election cycle. First there was the wars, then the economy. Education fell further and further down the list of voter priorities.

America's public infrastructure is crumbling -- and not just our roads and bridges. Our education "system" is in bad need of reengineering. This is particularly important in the middle and high school grades where America now lags behind most developed countries in achievement levels. At the critical point where young people should be connecting with college and 21st century careers, we rely on an outdated system that evolved in the 1970s -- a weird combination of a shopping mall and a sorting machine.

Having recently traveled to Asia, it's obvious that we don't just have a technical problem, we have a cultural problem. We simply don't value education as much as emerging economies. Who could possibly navigate the political morass to successfully reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and call the American people to a new level of support for education?

Either of the two most successful urban superintendents (that have benefited substantially from mayoral control), Joel Klein in New York and Arne Duncan in Chicago, would be a great choice. Joel has the benefit of DC experience and Arne's got game (he plays basketball with Obama). Alan Bersin and Tom Payzant are smart, courageous veteran superintendents with political experience.

Klein suggested a venture capitalist -- a great idea. John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins, spends most of his time on clean tech, but is also an education savvy philanthropist.

With lots of union push back it has been hard for Democrat governors to make educational progress, but Mike Easley has done a good job following Jim Hunt's lead in North Carolina. Former Maine Governor Angus King was a great leader on technology and Roy Barnes was a courageous leader against tenure in Georgia. Duval Patrick, Massachusetts, looks promising -- maybe second term.

Secretary of Education would be a great place to cross the aisle and there are a number of current and former Republican governors that Obama could choose from. It's probably to weird too suggest Jeb Bush, but Florida's progress on advanced course taking, data, accountability and choice are a good model for the country. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota, past chair of NGA, is a rising star. Mike Leavitt, former Utah governor and current HHS secretary may be looking for another intractable problem to solve.

Mike Cohen, Achieve, and Mike Smith, Hewlett Foundation, are two talented non-profit guys that served in the department under Clinton. Scott Palmer, the best attorney in the sector, also served under Clinton. And, while they may not have paid the political price, the non-profit and foundation world is full of entrepreneurial talent like Wedny Kopp, Teach for America; Jon Schnur, New Leaders for New Schools; and Andy Rotherham, Education Sector.

It's a job big enough for Colin Powell. And with support from folks like those listed above, he would have the stature to lead this fight on the home front.

One closing lament for whomever is chosen: I wish we had just one month of the Iraq war budget to spend on educational innovation. We could produce a new generation of engaging, open content, adaptive online assessments, new school formats serving urban kids, and a well-paid national corp of school leaders.