04/27/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Who Will Romney Choose for Education?

While Team Romney plugs away on his vice presidential decision, backroom planning commences for a possible administration and presidential transition. Romney has announced two dozen foreign policy advisors, but just three for education (Nina Rees, Marty West, and Phil Handy) and only recently released an outline of his education agenda. From these scraps, we can piece together who might be chosen to lead his Department of Education and the direction of his education policy making.

From what we know from his record as governor, his 2010 book No Apology, and his campaign's website, Romney's beliefs about education are moderate to right-of-center, certainly not a radical nor a major reformer. He supports testing and accountability, school choice, and merit pay. He is dubious on the role of unions and efforts to reduce class size, but has advocated for higher new teacher pay, technology, and writing instruction. He has supported the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, despite a lack of public support and major criticism from leaders of both parties. On the whole, his views aren't that different from Presidents Clinton, Bush, or Obama.

On the Department itself, so often the target of existential threats, Romney has been critical, but cagey. While vowing to keep his thoughts on whether to eliminate specific agencies secret, he has spoken about consolidation and major cut backs for education.

So, where does this leave us for candidates to fill the position of Secretary of Education?

Margaret Spellings, former Secretary in the Bush Administration, has recently volunteered as a policy advisor to the Romney campaign. She previously coordinated the passage of NCLB from the White House, implemented the law as head of the agency, and has continued to support most of its key provisions. While she is highly a capable public servant and knows the office, Spellings may not be chosen for two reasons. First, she simply may not want the job. Cabinet recidivism is rare. In the last fifty years, only Rumsfeld (Defense 75-77, 01-05), Ruckelshaus (EPA 70-73, 83-85), and Lew (OMB 98-01, 10-12) held the same Cabinet position in different administrations. Most seek out higher positions, and Spellings would likely be no different -- unsatisfied to till the same ground twice. Second, she's currently affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce and has registered as a lobbyist. We don't know whether President Obama's anti-lobbying rhetoric will persist through this campaign, nor whether a Romney presidency would overturn the strict limitations on lobbyists, but this tag would likely hamper her confirmation and potentially discourage the nomination.

Another woman who has the national-level exposure to be chosen is Lisa Graham Keegan. Currently, Keegan runs the Education Breakthrough Network, a national school choice organization. She is also an education expert with American Action Forum (AAF), a think tank founded in part by Senator Norm Coleman which is closely affiliated with American Crossroads, the Karl Rove campaign finance juggernaut. As in 2008, when the Center for American Progress provided President Obama with dozens of people and ideas, think tanks have become entangled in presidential politics. If Romney wins in November, he is likely going to be financially indebted to Rove and intellectually indebted to AAF.

Keegan's chief weakness may be her inability to pick a winner. She served as education advisor and spokesperson for the McCain 2008 campaign and famously debated Obama representative Linda Darling-Hammond. Most recently, she has advised Newt Gingrich and co-authored the education section of Gingrich's book, To Save America. Until the Speaker drops out of the race and endorses Governor Romney, it is unlikely his surrogates will get serious consideration.

Instead, Romney may turn to someone who is on the AAF board, but brings other attributes. Sara Martinez Tucker most recently served as the Under Secretary at Education covering higher education issues. Prior to that, Tucker was the President of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, a group that advocates for increasing the number of Hispanic students enrolled in college. Ethnic background is a factor in Cabinet decisions. Interest groups in particular pay close attention to the background of Cabinet nominees. President Bush received praise for naming two African Americans, two Latino Americans, and an Asian American to his Cabinet. Tucker would be the second Secretary from a Latino background (Lauro Cavazos, 88-90) and the third woman. For a campaign that has struggled to gather support from Latinos, and lacks visible advisors from that community, Tucker would offer much. Romney, though, has not revealed much interest in higher education, Tucker's area of policy expertise. He has taken jabs at the President's alma mater and his campaign education advisors are all elementary and secondary education experts. Would choosing a higher education leader commit Romney to addressing issues that are low on his agenda?

For these reasons, this may be an appointment where Romney goes bold. Former Chairman and CEO of Intel, Craig Barrett, has devoted much of his time since leaving the microchip company on education. He is Chairman of the Arizona Ready Education Council, which oversees state education reform, and also runs a charter school company. He is a Republican Party supporter -- donating more than $40,000 in 2012 -- and recently appeared in New Jersey with Republican superstar Governor Chris Christie to discuss education.

Appointing someone from business is, of course, not new. President Kennedy famously chose Ford Motor Company President Robert McNamara to be Secretary of Defense, and executives have dominated appointments to Treasury and Commerce. But Barrett would be the first CEO to lead Education. Given the thrust of Romney's views which emphasize market-based reforms, choosing a CEO would only be natural. Moreover, Spellings, Keegan, and Tucker all are closely associated with Bush-era policies. Because Barrett was not in government during the passage and implementation of the law, he possesses the distance to be a balanced reformer: capable of supporting the architecture of the law while speaking out for change. Further, if a major overhaul is actually one of Romney's secrets, would Barrett not be as invested in the current structure as the other candidates, and more willing to gut his own agency?