Obama Picks Chicago's Schools Chief For Cabinet

By Anne E. Kornblut and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 16, 2008; 12:31 PM

President-elect Barack Obama nominated Chicago schools executive Arne Duncan as his education secretary this morning and is expected to tap Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) later this week to serve as secretary of the interior, all but finalizing his selections for major Cabinet posts.

Appearing with Duncan at Dodge Renaissance Academy, a Chicago elementary school that the two visited together in 2005, Obama said improving the nation's schools was a critical part of remaining competitive in the global economy of the 21st century.

"If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, then we're going to have to out-educate the world today," Obama said. "Yet, when our high school dropout rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world, when a third of all fourth graders can't do basic math, when more and more Americans are getting priced out of attending college -- we are falling far short of that goal . . . We cannot continue on like this. It is morally unacceptable for our children -- and economically untenable for America."

Duncan, 44, has been chief executive of the Chicago public schools since 2001, steering the nation's third-largest school district, which has more than 400,000 students. Duncan was raised in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, not far from Obama's home, and is a longtime friend and basketball partner of the president-elect. He graduated from Harvard University, where he was co-captain of the basketball team, and he played professional basketball in Australia from 1987 to 1991. He returned to Chicago to direct the Ariel Education Initiative, which creates educational opportunities for youths on the South Side, and joined the city's public school system in 1998 as deputy chief of staff.

Obama praised Duncan's willingness to embrace wide-ranging types of education reform -- from shutting down failing schools to encouraging public charter schools to supporting master teacher certification to paying educators for improved school performance.

"When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn't blink," Obama said. "He's not beholden to any one ideology -- and he doesn't hesitate for one minute to do what needs to be done . . .So when Arne speaks to educators across America, it won't be from up in some ivory tower, but from the lessons he's learned during his years changing our schools from the bottom up."

Duncan called education "the civil rights issue of this generation."

"Our children have just one chance to get a quality education," he said. "And they need and deserve to get the absolute best."

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who visited a Chicago elementary school last week to highlight Duncan's pay-for-performance program, showered praise on the executive in an interview with The Washington Post last week. Spellings called him "a really good school leader."

"I do think he's a reform-oriented school leader who has been a supporter of No Child Left Behind and accountability concepts and teacher quality," she said. "He's a kindred spirit."

Dodge Renaissance Academy was a failing school on Chicago's West Side that the city shuttered in 2002. Duncan reopened the school as an academy where candidates for advanced degrees in education work in the classrooms. Duncan and Obama visited the school three years ago and hailed it as a successful model for teacher residency programs that could be replicated in the toughest schools nationwide.

Although Obama has not detailed how he will try to fix the nation's struggling schools, he has promised to recruit an "army of new teachers," create better tests and give public schools more funding. The president-elect has not taken sides in a debate between reform advocates and powerful teachers unions, and choosing Duncan seems to be a consensus move likely to appeal to both.

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