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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.

Duncan is embraced by the teachers unions, who have been concerned about high-stakes testing and worry about merit pay being tied to test scores, as well as reformers, who favor charter schools and tougher standards.

Duncan partnered with the Chicago Teachers Union to develop a performance-pay plan for the city's teachers, while also supporting charter schools. Democrats for Education Reform wrote in a policy paper that Duncan "has credibility with various factions in the education policy debate and would allow President Obama to avoid publicly choosing sides in that debate."

The selection of Salazar is expected to be popular among environmental advocates but, as with Obama's earlier Cabinet choices, would set off a political scramble: Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) would appoint a replacement to complete Salazar's term through 2010, when a potentially tough fight would follow. And the move would put a freshman, Rep. Mark Udall, who won the other Senate seat last month, in position as the state's senior senator. Salazar's brother, John, serves in the House and could be among those considered for the appointment to succeed him in the Senate.

Ken Salazar, who has pitched himself as a moderate throughout his political career, was elected to the Senate in 2004 after serving six years as Colorado's attorney general. His departure for the Cabinet would leave only two Hispanics in the Senate, one of whom, Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), is retiring at the end of the next Congress.

Yesterday afternoon, Obama formally rolled out the members of his climate change and energy team. Obama, vowing to address global warming and alternative energy sources, named Nobel laureate physicist Steven Chu as his energy secretary, Lisa P. Jackson as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Nancy Sutley as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Carol M. Browner as assistant to the president for energy and climate change, a new post.

At a news conference in Chicago, Obama said that Chu "values science." Last week, before making the choice, the president-elect met with former vice president Al Gore to discuss climate change, part of a return-to-science approach that Obama promised during the campaign.

Appearing in Chicago yesterday, Obama described his team as uniquely qualified to confront the challenges of global warming. He said past promises to seek renewable energy sources, long unfulfilled, must be met.

"This time has to be different. This time we cannot fail, nor can we be lulled into complacency just because the price at the pump has gone down, for now, from $4 per gallon," Obama said, acknowledging one of the greatest challenges -- falling gasoline prices -- to his hope of giving renewable energy a sense of urgency. He may also, his aides admit, have difficulty overhauling the nation's approach to energy in the midst of an economic crisis that has frozen new investments and wiped out funding for research and development.

But Obama promised a "new energy economy," starting with his economic recovery program, which he said would not only protect the environment but also create jobs, make businesses more efficient and improve national security.

Earlier yesterday, Obama convened his proposed national security team, including James L. Jones as national security adviser, Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security, in Chicago.

Staff writers Maria Glod, Amit R. Paley and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

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