Who Can Hook You Up With a White House Job?A key voice in the Obama administration’s decisions about filling top education posts is candid about his less-than-perfect record when it comes to executive recruitment.
Back in 2000, Jon Schnur was looking for someone to head up the Chicago branch of his fledgling nonprofit for training inner-city principals, New Leaders for New Schools.
“People told me the most talented person I could find was someone named Michelle Obama,” Schnur recalled. “I was able to reach Barack Obama, who put me in touch with her,” but the future first lady couldn’t be persuaded.
“She had other engagements at the University of Chicago. It didn’t work out,” Schnur said.
A domestic policy staffer in the Clinton White House and adviser to Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid, Schnur later advised Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate and during his presidential campaign last year.
Schnur’s suggestions, on both education policy and personnel, are closely heeded by the Obama White House, according to administration officials. “He played an important role — from the secretary job on down the line,” one top official said. “He helped a lot of people land.”
Schnur, 43, is close to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, and sources said he promoted Duncan for the Cabinet job.
Philanthropist and Democratic donor Eli Broad, who funds Teach for America and Schnur’s principals program, said he considered Schnur a counterweight against the “bunch of academics” on Obama’s education transition team. Soon after the election, Broad said he told Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that “the education secretary should not be an academic or ex-governor. ... He said, ‘I assure you. We’re going to have a practitioner.’”
“There are a number of people who could have been absolutely outstanding secretaries of education, but I don’t think there’s anybody who could have been better than Arne Duncan,” Schnur said in an interview. “He lived it. He understood what it took to move student achievement for high-poverty kids. ... The personal confidence you see the president having for Arne is just so important.”
Schnur continues to have an impact on decisions, in part because he has Duncan’s ear, officials say. Duncan touts Schnur’s “critical role” in the transition and says he expects to work closely with the education reform advocate in the future.
For his part, Schnur stresses that his main advice has been on policy issues but acknowledges putting forward names for various slots. He won’t discuss whom he’s lobbied for, but reform types continued to land top-level jobs.
Schnur’s involvement in Democratic politics has occasionally made for heated exchanges with his older brother, Dan, a prominent Republican strategist who was the communications director for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid.
“We try to keep it pretty civil most of the time,” Dan Schnur said.
Given Jon Schnur’s connections and impact, many in the education world were stunned in May when the Wisconsin native announced plans to return to his New York-based organization — passing up an offer to be Duncan’s chief of staff. Schnur said his two children — and one more on the way — with his wife, Elisa, were part of the calculus, but a bigger factor was his conviction that education reform in America will ultimately be a bottom-up endeavor.
“I can have the most impact in this path of education reform by trying, in a handful of cities around the country, to prove you can achieve exceptional results and then really transform that by scaling it up,” Schnur said.
The "bunch of academics" is presumably Linda Darling-Hammond and anyone who questioned Broad's business reform model for public education. Obama supposedly said he'll find a "practitioner" - but Duncan only has real experience in a) his jump shot, b) repeating his various lines and lies over and over, and c) working with wealthy elites to systematically privatize education while weakening public schools. Which experiences come in handy in Duncan's new role?