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HotSeat Interview: Former Duncan Comms Guy Peter Cunningham

Peter cunning cunninghamSafely back in Chicago after four years commuting to DC, former USDE communications chief Peter Cunningham shares his thoughts about the ups and downs of working in the Obama administration, the differences and similarities between working for a local Board of Education and the US Secretary of Education -- the local reporters are more obnoxious, apparently -- and what makes Arne Duncan better than most other appointees and elected officials.

Finally on the HotSeat, Cunningham credits Joanne Weiss for making Race to the Top a big success, and Carmel Martin for the NCLB waiver program. (Despite all my feeble attempts to give him credit/blame for naming RTTT, he says it wasn't him.) Cunningham describes how difficult it is to do parent engagement from Washington, and says that "edujobs" was one of the projects he's most proud of during his time in DC.

Check it out and see what you think.  

What makes Arne Duncan so good doing events and public outreach compared to other appointees or politicians? 

Cunningham:  He actually listens and never tries to con people.  He genuinely believes that his point of view is no more important than anyone else's.

What was the biggest difference running communications in Washington compared to the Chicago Board of Education?

 Cunningham:  Chicago was tougher in some ways because the rubber meets the road at the local level.  At the national level it takes a long time to see results. Local reporters were right in your nose -- including you.

 What was your best/biggest day/accomplishment as part of the USDE?

 Cunningham:  Saving 400,000 teaching jobs and issuing $10 million Pell grants. States adopting higher standards is transformative.  Personally --from a communications standpoint -- the bus tours and the respect project -- talking with teachers about elevating the profession -- were very rewarding and making labor-management collaboration a virtue.

 What was your worst moment?

Cunningham:  Parent engagement is very difficult at the federal level.  If I was there for another term i would work harder on that -- and keep talking to teachers as much as possible.

 Is it true you slept in someone's basement during the week and commuted back to Chicago on weekends?

 Cunningham:  Actually it was the attic.

 Who rightfully gets credit for naming the discretionary grant program "Race to the Top" (and the signed basketball giveaway program)?

Cunningham:  Jon Schnur was on the transition team and he definitely played a big role in naming the program along with the folks at DPC.  It wasn't me-- but I certainly helped build the brand.  Joanne Weiss really built the program. Signed basketballs might have come from the scheduling team or maybe Tim Tuten. They're a fun bunch. 

What's the trick to getting and keeping your boss in the good graces of the White House?

 Cunningham:  Try not to surprise them.  Give them good ideas.  Challenge them -- but don't be obnoxious.  And hit the open man - especially if he's a lefty with a good three-pointer.

 Which was worse -- Duncan calling Hurricane Katrina a great opportunity or his coming out for gay marriage (or was there a moment that was even more dicey)?

 Cunningham:  We definitely regretted the Katrina line and we apologized for it. The gay marriage thing worked out great in the end. [I forgot to ask him about the back to school thing.]

 Who's to blame for NCLB waivers?

 Cunningham:  There is no one to blame.  It's a huge win for states, schools, teachers and kids.  The Administration gets the credit—POTUS, DPC, Arne Duncan, Carmel Martin -- and state chiefs.

Previous posts:  Announcement here, departure here

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