Obama picks Chicago schools chief to head Education Department

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Later today, President-elect Obama will announce his nomination of fellow Harvard grad, Hyde Park neighbor, and basketball enthusiast Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, according to numerous press reports. 

Superintendent of Chicago’s public schools for the past seven years, Duncan has been a reformer, supporting merit pay for teachers and charter schools, for example, while also earning respect from teachers’ unions.  As The Chicago Tribune notes:

Since Mayor Richard Daley plucked Duncan from obscurity to head the country’s third-largest school district in 2001, Duncan has gained a reputation as a reformer who isn’t afraid to rankle the teachers union or punish underperforming schools. His decisions to pay students for good grades, back an unrealized plan for a gay-friendly high school and consider boarding schools often polarized the community while bolstering his renegade image.

“He has the brains, courage, creativity and temperament for the job,” said former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas, who hired Duncan as his deputy chief of staff in 1998. “And he’s very close to the president[-elect], which is an important thing, too.”

Close, indeed.  Duncan, who played basketball at Harvard and professionally in Australia for a while, has been a frequent player in Obama”s pick-up ball games.  

By choosing Duncan, Obama is making an adroit play down the middle with a seasoned professional he can trust who has sought to work with all sides in the often rough battles over education:

Obama’s choice has been anticipated, and argued about, by education groups anxious to see what Obama will do to fix the country’s ailing schools. Obama managed throughout his campaign to avoid taking sides in the contentious debate between reform advocates and teachers’ unions over the direction of education and the fate of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind accountability law. 

The selection of Duncan may satisfy both factions. Reform advocates wanted a big-city school superintendent who, like Duncan, has sought accountability for schools and teachers. And teachers’ unions, an influential segment of the party base, wanted an advocate for their members; they have said they believe Duncan is willing to work with them. 

The choice of Duncan has won bi-partisan praise, as well.  President Bush’s Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, told the Chicago Sun-Times a few days ago, “He’s a terrific school leader. I consider him a fellow reformer and someone who cares deeply about students. He’d be a great choice.”