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Education Nominee Is Warmly Received in Senate

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009; Page A09

Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, President-elect Barack Obama's pick for education secretary, promised yesterday to work to expand preschool, build the ranks of quality teachers and support such initiatives as charter schools and performance pay, setting out an agenda that won him broad bipartisan support at a Senate confirmation hearing.

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Duncan's warm reception before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee indicated that he will be confirmed without a hitch.

Duncan, 44, was applauded for embracing an array of measures to boost achievement in the diverse and high-poverty Chicago schools during his seven years as chief executive. He has supported innovations and tough accountability while finding common ground with the teachers union and reaching out to the community.

"Mr. Duncan, there is no question that schools across America can benefit from the same kind of fresh thinking that you brought to Chicago public schools," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "As you know very well, perhaps our greatest educational challenge is to improve the performance of urban and rural public schools serving high-poverty communities."

Duncan promised to aggressively pursue Obama's agenda: expanding preschool, making college more accessible and affordable, finding new ways to prepare teachers and helping overhaul the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

"We must do dramatically better. We must continue to innovate," Duncan said. "We must build upon what works. We must stop doing what doesn't work. And we have to continue to challenge the status quo."

Duncan, who was a regular at Obama's basketball games in Chicago, said the Obamas have inspired children to see education as a road to success. "Never before has being smart been so cool," he said.

Lawmakers said they were impressed by a résumé that dates to Duncan's youth, when he tutored at a center his mother ran on Chicago's South Side. In the 1990s, Duncan was director of the Ariel Education Initiative, a program to help create educational opportunities for Chicago children. He was hired by the city schools in 1998.

Yesterday, Duncan's children, Claire, 7, and Ryan, 4, read books and drew during the hearing.

"President-elect Obama has made several distinguished Cabinet appointments. From my view of it all, I think you're best. I hope I still think that a year from now," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Alexander pressed Duncan on his plans to encourage often-controversial performance pay programs, including the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to support such efforts. Chicago schools, in partnership with the teachers union, use the funding to give teachers bonuses for student gains and extra responsibility.

"How are you going to be able, using the Teacher Incentive Fund or other ideas, to help the country do more of what you did in Chicago to reward outstanding teaching?" Alexander asked.

Duncan said the Teacher Incentive Fund is "one of the best things" Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has done.

"In the education business talent matters tremendously," Duncan said. "So whatever we can do to support great teaching, recognize it, reward it, grow it -- that's the most important thing we can do."

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