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Education Nominee Appeals to Reformers, Unions

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008 12:11 PM

In seven years as chief executive of the Chicago school system, Arne Duncan earned a reputation as a leader who pushed for strong measures to improve schools but also reached out to the teachers union and the community.

As President-elect Barack Obama's pick to be become the nation's next education secretary, he'll draw on that background to try and bridge the deep divides among education advocates, teachers unions and civil rights groups over how to fix America's schools.

"When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners," Obama said in a televised news conference at a Chicago school this morning as he announced the nomination.

The president-elect noted that Duncan had closed some "failing" schools and championed public charter schools despite controversy. "When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn't blink," Obama said.

Under Duncan's leadership of the nation's third-largest school system, charter schools were expanded and a performance-pay plan was launched with the blessing of teachers. He supports a program to bring people into teaching who have little classroom experience but strong academic backgrounds. In 2006, he called on Congress to double funding for the No Child Left Behind law.

With Duncan at the helm, Chicago's graduation rate has edged up and test scores have improved. More students are taking advanced classes.

Duncan's résumé appeals to those identify themselves as reformers and tend to support tough accountability, charter schools, performance-pay plans and other steps that shake up the status quo. But his calls for increased funding and willingness to partner with teachers also wins the approval of unions and school officials who think the federal government imposes too many sanctions without offering enough support.

"Duncan is someone we believe can work with everyone, and that's going to be an important part of setting a new tone to get things done in the new administration, instead of treading water," said Joe Williams, executive director the New York-based Democrats for Education Reform.

Duncan, a Harvard University graduate, has close ties to Obama and has helped shape his education platform. During Obama's time in Illinois, the pair visited schools in Chicago but also bonded over pickup basketball.

On the spectrum of education advocates, nearly everyone finds something to like about Duncan. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called him a "reform-oriented school leader who has been a supporter of No Child Left Behind and accountability." National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, head of the nation's largest teachers union, noted Duncan's push for increased funding and flexibility: "For too long, federal education policy has been about teaching to the test, and Duncan could use his new position to move beyond those failed policies, and provide every child with 21st-century skills."

Duncan will take over the Education Department at a pivotal time. Efforts to revamp the 2002 No Child Left Behind Law, which aims to boost achievement of children from poor families, has been on hold as Congress awaited the new president's vision. But many educators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have soured on the law, which requires states to rate schools on student test scores. Teachers unions and some school officials have begun to see it as too rigid and punitive.

Obama has promised to "fix the failures" of the education law, but hammering out details will not be easy. He has pledged to improve testing and create a more nuanced way to hold schools accountable. But some of the law's advocates, including civil rights groups that applaud the spotlight on minority student performance, worry the law could be watered down.

Duncan's challenge will be to help lawmakers and advocates reach agreement, said Michael J. Petrilli, who was associate assistant deputy secretary in the Education Department from 2001 to 2005 under President Bush and now works at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education think tank.

"This confirms what we know, that President-elect Obama has reform instincts but he's also a diplomat and is careful to not alienate key constituencies in the Democratic Party and across the aisle," Petrilli said. "That's going to be a delicate balance to walk the line between the reform camp and the education establishment."

Many of Obama's plans for the nation's schools are rooted in efforts already underway in Chicago. Citing the success of charter schools in Chicago, Obama vowed to double federal funding for such schools to $400 million. The president-elect also wants to expand a teacher residency program in Chicago that prepares teachers to work in high-poverty schools.

In Chicago, some Duncan-backed initiatives have met with pushback from some teachers and parents. There has been some resistance, for instance, to the city's move to shutter some of its lowest-performing schools and reopen them with new staffs.

But he also has a reputation as an approachable, even humble, leader. In October, he choked up as he turned down an award given to him by an anti-gun group, saying too many Chicago students had been killed and he had "not earned it."

Debra Strauss, president-elect of the Illinois PTA, recalled meeting Duncan at his office to talk about an initiative to harness the work of community organizations to engage parents and provide better services and support for families. She said Duncan met her at the door, shook her hand and introduced himself as Arne.

"He's sort of a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-down-to-work kind of individual," Strauss said. "He brings a very down-to-earth perspective."

Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the selection of Duncan shows Obama values the perspective of an on-the-ground educator. "The message is that he wanted someone who has the respect of the field," Loveless said. "These are modest reforms, nothing way out of the mainstream, but pragmatic and they seem to be working."

During the campaign, Obama often mentioned Chicago schools and praised Duncan's work.

"A while back, I was talking with my friend Arne Duncan, who runs the Chicago public schools," Obama said in a September speech. "He was explaining how he'd managed to increase the number of kids taking and passing AP courses in Chicago over the last few years. What he said was, our kids aren't smarter than they were three years ago; our expectations for them are just higher. Well, I think it's time we raised expectations for our kids all across this country, and that's what we'll do when I'm president of the United States."

Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.

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