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Most Laud Obama’s Choice for Education Post

Arne Duncan’s supporters praise his inner-city reforms, while others decry his lack of experience on higher education issues.

Education secretary-designate Arne Duncan is drawing praise for his ability to bridge gaps between competing K-12 factions, though his lack of experience in public higher education may require some on-the-job training, analysts say.

President-elect Obama selected Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, to take over the U.S. Education Department. In choosing Duncan, the president-elect is bringing in 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 Duncan’s 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.

However, the Network of Teacher Activist Groups, a coalition of grassroots organizations, drew 4,000 signatures on an online petition opposing Duncan for promoting “privatized, corporatized and anti-democratic schools.”

Even Duncan’s ardent supporters say he likely will face a learning curve on federal higher education programs.

“His biggest challenge is going to be student financial aid,” said Cynthia Brown, director of education policy at the Center for American Progress. Duncan, however, should be up to the task, she said. “I think he’ll be very good. He’s very focused on disadvantaged students.”

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 percent of its students are Black; 39 percent are Latino. Duncan was himself educated in private schools: the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools 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. “When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners,” Obama said in the announcement from Chicago. “For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book — it’s the cause of his life. 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. Duncan serves on the Board of Overseers for Harvard College and the Visiting Committees for Harvard University’s Graduate School of E d u c a t i o n and the University of C h i c a g o ’ s School of Social Service Administration, but has never taught in a classroom and has little experience formulating policy.

“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.”

“When he says he views education as the civil rights issue of our generation, he means it,” added Gillette.

Duncan has won kudos for improving high school graduation rates and creating a department of post-secondary education within the Chicago Public Schools to improve college-going rates.

Dr. Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, called Duncan an “outstanding choice.”

“Arne is going to bring on-the-ground experience to the office of Secretary of Education,” Lomax said. “He is going to bring experience from an urban school district with a large low-income minority student body. He hasn’t just talked about helping kids of color. He has really put his shoulder to the wheel.”

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