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Obama Picks Chicago's Schools Chief For Cabinet

Arne Duncan is a friend and basketball partner of the president-elect's.
Arne Duncan is a friend and basketball partner of the president-elect's. (Charles Rex Arbogast - AP)
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By Anne E. Kornblut and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama will nominate Chicago schools executive Arne Duncan as his education secretary at an event in the city today, transition aides said, 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.

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Obama plans to introduce Duncan this morning at Dodge Renaissance Academy, a Chicago elementary school that the two visited together in 2005.

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.

In 1998, Duncan joined the Chicago public school system, where he served as deputy chief of staff. Three years later, Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Duncan chief executive.

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.

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