In Partnership with The 74

Flashback: That time Arne Duncan, Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton traveled the country talking about education

Guest contributor | July 20, 2016



#EDlection2016By Peter Cunningham 

In the spring of 2009, newly-elected President Barack Obama took a meeting in the Oval Office with civil rights leader Al Sharpton. Reverend Sharpton told the White House he wanted to talk about education so Education Secretary Arne Duncan also attended. Sharpton also brought along an unlikely guest: former House Speaker and GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich.

By all accounts the meeting went well but towards the end, according to Secretary Duncan, the President suddenly suggested that the three of them go on the road together to talk about education. “You’ll get tons of media,” he said.

Duncan was somewhat flabbergasted by the idea but nodded. When he got back to the department, he stuck his head in my office and said, “You won’t believe what just happened.”

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

As the Assistant Secretary for Communications at the U.S. Department of Education, I had the delicate task of organizing school visits with Reverend Sharpton, Speaker Gingrich and Secretary Duncan. Reverend Sharpton wanted to see schools serving low-income kids of color. Speaker Gingrich wanted to see charters. Turns out they are mostly the same.

As a lifelong Democrat and strong supporter of President Clinton, the notion of spending quality time with his nemesis Newt Gingrich was not high on my bucket list. Nevertheless, I became friendly with one of his top staffers and the Speaker himself turned out to be pretty agreeable. A few months later, at my request, Speaker Gingrich even came to the administration’s defense in social media over a little dust-up involving the president’s back to school speech.

The Sharpton-Gingrich tour visited schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C., where we chatted with teachers and kids. Before talking to the media, we typically spent a few minutes together in a holding room collecting ourselves.

“Who wants to go first,” I asked. Everyone pointed to the others.

“What do you want to say?” I asked.

“The kids are learning,” said Sharpton.

“Charters are working,” said Gingrich.

“This is amazing when people come together around education,” said Duncan.

“Let’s do it,” said I.

And we did – just a few times before scheduling more visits became difficult. The episode was one of the more surreal experiences I had in Washington.

In today’s polarized political environment, it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton and a Democratic cabinet member on the road together. Hard to imagine perhaps, but more needed than ever.

Newt Gingrich is scheduled to speak tonight at the Republican National Convention, where the theme is “Make America First Again.” Who knows, maybe he’ll bring up his visits to some of America’s best schools.


This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

Read Next