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DeVos Appoints New Leader of African-American Education Initiative

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UPDATED

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has appointed Terris Todd, the ethnic vice chair of the Michigan Republican Party, to the long-vacant position of executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans.

Todd, a former teacher and administrator in the Battle Creek, Mich., schools, quickly rose through the ranks of the state GOP after switching political allegiances. The DeVos family has donated millions to Republican candidates and causes in the state and the education secretary is a former state party chairwoman.

In a unlisted YouTube video posted in March, Todd said he was asked to deliver the opening prayer during a Barack Obama campaign rally in Battle Creek in 2008, but turned down the offer because he was "asked not to mention the name of Christ." The video is linked from the Calhoun County, Mich, Republican Party website.

The claim seems to play on conspiracy theories that allege Obama, a Christian, is secretly a Muslim. Obama, who battled misperceptions about his faith throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, closed that Battle Creek rally by saying, "God bless you all."

In a quote attributed to Todd on the site, he said: "Around the time of Obama's campaign for the presidency and into his second term, I began to see and understand that my values really aligned much better with the Republican platform which speaks firmly to my faith, family, and freedoms given by God."

The Education Department did not make Todd available for an interview.

Todd joined the Republican party in 2015 after a failed run for a state House of Representatives seat in 2014, where he lost in the Democratic primary. He was elected as the state Republican Party ethnic vice chair in 2017.

Before taking on the new role at the Education Department, Todd most recently worked as director of community outreach for Community Action of South Central Michigan, an agency that oversees services, including Head Start and Early Head Start, for low-income families in a five-county area. He spent more than a decade as a teacher and administrator in the Battle Creek schools.

Until Todd's appointment in May, the executive director's position for the African-American initiative had been vacant for nearly four years. The previous director left in September 2016 during the final months of the Obama presidency.

"The administration has been actively searching for the best candidate for this role," an education department spokeswoman wrote in an email to Education Week.

The federal government also oversees advisory commissions on educational excellence for Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and Alaska Native students.

During the first year of the Trump administration, commissioners questioned whether their voices were valued in an administration that many of them view as hostile to communities of color. But the Education Department and White House have filled key roles this summer.

The White House broadened the scope of the Hispanic group this summer, renaming it the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative and appointing New Mexico Lt. Gov. John Sanchez as director.

During the Obama presidency, appointees to the African-American and Hispanic initiatives helped launch the My Brother's Keeper initiative, which sought to improve education and expand opportunities for black, Latino, and Native American boys. The program lives on as a nonprofit that merged with the Obama Foundation.

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