Second, and very happily, President Obama has asked our delegated Deputy Secretary John King Jr. to step into my role when I leave. An announcement to that effect went out from the White House a few minutes ago.
Serving the President in the work of expanding opportunity for students throughout this country has been the greatest honor of my life. Doing so alongside people of the brilliance, ability and moral conviction of the team here at ED has been nothing short of thrilling. We have been lucky to have an a amazing team here from Day One, but I honestly believe our team today is the strongest it’s ever been. So it’s with real sadness that have come to recognize that being apart from my family has become too much of a strain, and it is time for me to step aside and give a new leader a chance. I haven’t talked with anyone about what I’ll do next, and probably won’t for a little while – I’m simply returning to Chicago to live with my family. I imagine my next steps will continue to involve the work of expanding opportunity for children, but I have no idea what that will look like yet.
What gives me peace with this decision, and I hope comes as a reassurance to everyone here, is the extraordinary talent of John and our leadership team. John comes to this role with a record of exceptional accomplishment as a lifelong educator – a teacher, a school leader, and a leader of school systems, most recently as Commissioner of Education in New York State before he joined our team. Over the years that I have known him, and especially in the months we have worked together here, I’ve come to recognize John as one of the most passionate, courageous, clear-headed leaders in our field. His talent is such that he will become one of the youngest Cabinet members in American history. (I encourage you to read his remarkable personal story, which he laid out in a Huffington Post article[huffingtonpost.com] a few years ago.)
The team here is extraordinary. Each of our offices is headed by a genuine national leader from whom I’ve learned enormously, and at the center of that team is a senior leadership I’ve depended upon daily – in addition to John, our Under Secretary Ted Mitchell, a visionary whose ideas and moral force are helping to change the landscape of opportunity in higher education; and my Chief of Staff, Emma Vadehra, who understands how to accomplish change in education as well as anyone else in this country. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to announce a replacement for John to carry out the duties of Deputy Secretary soon, and I owe this team enormous thanks for their dedication and sacrifice.
I owe a similarly profound thanks to each of you. The work of this Department is exceptionally ambitious – to ensure that every student in this country enjoys genuine opportunity to learn, to grow, to excel. As a comparatively small team, often under challenging conditions and timelines, our staff has continued to offer example after example of dedication beyond the call of duty. I’m honored to have led you, and delighted by what good hands this Department will be in. I ask each of you that you offer John and his team the same commitment I’ve witnessed from you.
As I think about our shared work here, and about what it has meant to spend seven years serving the President and the country, I think about two students I’ve met in recent years. The first is Brandon, a young man I met at a round table discussion in Denver as part of My Brother’s Keeper. Brandon told a story I will never forget, about how his life had slipped off the tracks in elementary school. He had scrawled graffiti in a bathroom stall when he was 11 years old. His school, which had zero tolerance discipline policies, called the police, and he ended up being sentenced to pick up trash along the highway alongside adult criminals. He also ended up with a criminal record, and years later, when he tried to become a police officer, the department turned him away because of that record. For me, Brandon will always be a reminder of the distance we have to go as adults, to do right by our young people.
The second person is Russhaun Johnson. Russhaun had the deck stacked against him growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. His dad wasn’t around; he lived with his mom, who was a drug addict, until she was incarcerated for more than four years while he was in middle and high school. No one in his family was there for him, and many nights, he slept on park benches. He described himself as “two steps behind” from the start in school. What got Russhaun on a track to success, he says, was his teachers and counselors, who helped him see himself as the brilliant young man he is. He’s now an accomplished poet, and the president of his senior class. A few weeks ago, the whole country had the opportunity to witness his brilliance, as he introduced President Obama to a cheering crowd on the first day of our bus tour. Russhaun told the audience he is planning to go to college to become a teacher, because he wants to offer a next generation of young people the possibility that the caring educators
around him helped him see in himself. He is an example, to me, of what can go right for our children when our schools understand who they can become – and act on that knowledge.
When I think about the life paths of these two young people, I know that no one will fight harder for students like them than John King and the team he will lead here. I thank you for being part of that team, and promise you that you are in good hands.