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President-elect Obama today tapped Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan as his secretary of education, selecting an urban schools chief who has little background in public higher education but who emerged as a consensus pick to help bridge gaps among K-12 factions.

In selecting Duncan, the president-elect is choosing an inner-city chief who has closed low-performing schools and championed merit pay, winning kudos from reform-minded researchers. But teacher unions also praised the choice, noting his support for major increases in federal investments.

“This could be the beginning of a promising new period for public education in this country,” said Dennis Van Roekel, National Education Association president. The union leader praised Duncan for telling Congress that the No Child Left Behind Act needs a doubling of federal funds within five years. NCLB is underfunded by $71 billion, the union says.

His nomination also drew praise from the American Federation of Teachers and the chief Illinois’ state teachers union. But the secretary-designate is not a popular choice in all quarters; the Network of Teacher Activist Groups, a coalition of grassroots groups, drew 4,000 signatures on an online petition opposing him for promoting “privatized, corporatized and anti-democratic schools.”

The network instead had favored Linda Darling-Hammond, a researcher recognized for her work to promote education improvement through teacher support and professional development. Darling-Hammond, who is African American, has directed the president-elect’s education policy work group, and many expect her to continue playing a role in Obama’s education policy.

For the past seven years, Duncan, 44, has led the Chicago system, the third largest in the nation as well as significantly diverse: 46.5% of its students are Black while 39 percent are Latino. Duncan, who is White, was himself educated in private schools: the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Obama’s daughters attended, and as a magna cum laude graduate in sociology from Harvard University in 1987.

Obama called Duncan – his longtime friend and basketball buddy – a tough, unblinking reformer who devoted his career to improving public schools “from his days back in college, tutoring children here in Chicago; to his work at the helm of a non-profit remaking schools on the South Side; to his time working for the Chicago Public Schools, where he became chief executive officer of this city’s school system.”

“When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners,” Obama said in the announcement from Chicago’s Dodge Renaissance Academy, one of the Chicago public schools that Duncan shut down – then re-opened in 2003. It’s called one of Duncan’s “showcase” schools.

 “For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book – it’s the cause of his life,” he said. “When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn’t blink. He’s not beholden to any one ideology — and he doesn’t hesitate for one minute to do what needs to be done.”

While Duncan has a track record in the public schools arena, his higher education experience is more of a question mark. He serves on the Board of Overseers for Harvard College, his alma mater.

“I think that’s going to be of concern to many people – that he doesn’t have a lot of direct experience with public higher education,” said Maureen Gillette, dean of the College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. “But what I’ve experienced in Chicago is, certainly, he will be willing to work with all of us to achieve his goals.”

Gillette said that, particularly, Duncan has met frequently with a group of college of education deans in the Chicago area – including a meeting two weeks ago to address the public school system’s teacher shortage and retention problems.

“I know one thing he’s focusing on is the need to increase the number of teachers of color and the number of male teachers in Chicago public schools and I know he will take that commitment to Washington,” Gillette said.

“When he says he views education as the civil rights issue of our generation, he means it. Two Mondays ago, we probably spent an hour talking with him about how we jointly work on this issue of increasing the number of teachers of color in Chicago, and the number of male teachers in Chicago.”

According to Chicago Public Schools statistics, its schoolteacher ranks aren’t nearly as diverse as its student body: 47 percent White; 36 percent Black; 13 percent Latino and 3 percent Asian.

While teacher diversity may be lacking, Duncan has won kudos for creating a department of post-secondary education within the Chicago Public Schools to improve college-going rates.

Among class of 2007 Chicago graduates, for example, half enrolled in college within the year after completing high school. This rate is up 6.5 percentage points over the past four years. 

African American and Latino male graduates in Chicago also showed increases in college enrollment, based on school district data. Among African American males, 45 percent moved into higher education in 2007, up from 37 percent in 2004. For Latinos, college-going rates for male graduates increased from 30 percent to 37 percent during the same period. 

At a Washington, D.C., news conference last week, a senior official in Duncan’s Chicago administration told Diverse about the district’s college-going focus.

“We put in place a department of post-secondary education four years ago in our district,” said Joyce Brown, manager of secondary school counselors in the Chicago Public Schools. “Our college-going rates are up.”

While counselors still must deal with disciplinary issues, they receive professional development and training that helps them work with students on college exploration, Brown said.

In recent months, Duncan has plunged into some controversial waters of education policy. In each case, he pushed for unconventional ways to keep at-risk kids successfully in school:

In March, his school district began pursuing plans to open a pilot public boarding school for homeless children and students from troubled homes.

In September, he launched a “Green for Grades” program to award cash to freshman and sophomores at 20 high schools who earn As, Bs and Cs in four academic subjects and physical education. The reward: $50 per A, $35 per B, $20 per C in each five-week grading period.

In October, he recommended the school board approve a new school for gay, lesbian and transgender teenagers.

Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, which had offered up several names of Latinos to Obama’ transition team as potential education appointees, says he holds out hope that Duncan will look to some of those names, particularly for the slot of undersecretary that oversees higher education.

Flores said Duncan was “an excellent choice” since he will soon have to take up the reauthorization of the NCLB.

“My sense is, in his work with the Chicago Public Schools, he has had some relationship with higher education institutions in Chicago,” Flores said. “I suspect he would be a good person to work with… I realized he  might not have hands-on policy experience in terms of higher education, but Congress just passed the Higher Education Act this year, so that’s not something he’ll have to take up early.”

Indeed, some higher education advocates say it’s these key higher education slots – undersecretary and assistant secretary for post-secondary education – that may deserve the greatest monitoring.

“The secretary is the political spokesperson in chief,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. When it comes to higher education, the undersecretary and related posts “will be the most consequential,” he said.

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