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Mixed Reviews: Black and Latino Advocates On Duncan’s Record and Their Expectations

The highly anticipated announcement of the next U.S. Secretary of Education brought varied reactions from three key African-American higher education constituencies and at least one Latino organization.

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 No Child Left Behind Act.

“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.”

Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, was less gracious.

“NAFEO is disappointed,” said Baskerville. “We were supporting a number of compelling candidates including Dr. Belle Wheelan of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities.”

Now the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities, Wheelan was the Secretary of Education for the state of Virginia under former Governor Mark Warner and she was head of Virginia’s community college system.

Baskerville praised Wheelan for having a mix of pre-primary, primary, secondary and higher education experiences.

“At a time when we are losing 60 percent of African-American boys, the growing student populations are African-Americans as well as Latinos, and HBCUs continue to be the economic engines for the most distressed communities in the nation, it was my hope that we could have someone at the Department of Education that would signal the national priority to be placed on closing the achievement gaps, creating culturally sensitive educational opportunities for all students and pipeline them through diverse institutions.”

Other advocates question Duncan’s credentials on higher education.

Although Duncan serves on the Board of Overseers for Harvard College and the Visiting Committees for Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, he has never taught in a classroom and has little experience formulating policy.

“He isn’t someone who has had a lot of background in higher education,” said Dr. Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund. “That will pose problems, but also some opportunities. One opportunity will be to bring others to the table who are highly experienced in [higher education].

“The number one issue facing this nation is our failure to ensure that our kids are graduating from high school in the cohort that they started in,” adds Lomax, who is rumored to be among those in consideration for assistant secretary of education. “That is a critical issue for the nation and anyone who brings experience in that is ahead of the game.”  

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, Chairman of the House Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness Subcommittee, said of Duncan’s selection, “Arne Duncan is an impressive nominee who has built a sterling reputation as a pragmatic leader and an effective reformer of K-12 education. He is a consensus builder who time and again has proven his ability to bring people together in order to raise the performance of Chicago’s public schools and students.”

Duncan, the latest member to be named to Obama’s Cabinet, has been touted by many as a reformer, raising achievement in the nation’s third-largest school district.

Duncan, has been called a “budding hero in the education business” by President Bush’s former education secretary, Rod Paige. After President-Elect Barack Obama announced Duncan as his education choice, current Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings hailed him as a “visionary” school leader.

Under his leadership overall high school graduation rates in Chicago improved 8 percent, growing from 47 percent to 55 percent, according to Catalyst Chicago, an independent news magazine. The number of Chicago students enrolling in college has also increased.

“Our college-going rates are up,” said Joyce Brown, manager of secondary school counselors in the Chicago Public Schools at a news conference in Washington last week.

Among the class of 2007 graduates, for example, half enrolled in college within the year after completing high school. That rate reflected an increase of 6.5 percentage points since 2003.

Still, inner-city schools, such John Marshall Metropolitan High School in the impoverished West Garfield Park community, have not done much better under Duncan’s leadership than under previous administrations. Marshall’s graduation rate, for instance, is 40 percent, up only four points; and its college-going rate actually declined 4 points to 31 percent under Duncan, according to Catalyst.

Some inner-city schools in low-income neighborhoods of Chicago are performing so poorly that Illinois state Sen. James Meeks helped to organize a mass boycott of Chicago Public Schools earlier this year as part of his Save Our Schools Now campaign. On Sept. 2, nearly 1,000 Chicago students skip school as part of the boycott, The Chicago Tribune reported


The students were bussed to high-performing suburban schools on the outskirts of Chicago where they attempted to register. The goal of the boycott, says Meeks, was not to overwhelm high-performing school districts, but to illuminate the inequity of school funding in the city, he told a Chicago television station at the time.

Disparities in funding for struggling inner-city schools versus the amount of money that goes to wealthier, mostly White suburban schools has been a long-term problem for many school districts across the country. Chicago is no exception.

A Chicago Public Schools report shows that New Trier Township, located north of Chicago in Cook County, spent nearly $17,000 per student in 2005-06, while Chicago Public Schools spent an estimated $10,400 per pupil.

Meeks did not immediately return phone calls to Diverse to respond to questions about Duncan’s selection to become the next top education chief.

Chicago has made some strides under Duncan’s leadership, but district-wide high school test scores remain stagnant—only 31 percent of juniors meet state standards—leading many to question whether Chicago Public Schools graduates can succeed in college or in the job market.

Under Duncan, the lowest performing schools actually got worse, Catalyst reported this month. All but two of the city’s 10 lowest performing high schools in 2001 further deteriorated in 2008, Catalyst states.

Confronting the perils of a large urban public school system is a significant accomplishment, but enduring the rigors of a nation falling further and further behind is quite another, education officials say. When asked whether or not Duncan was a strong choice for education secretary, Dwayne Ashley, CEO and president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund responded, “I think the proof is going to be in the pudding.”

“I think Arne is going to bring a new energy. He is progressive. He is a reformer. He understands K-12 and what we need to do to fix some of the challenges we have there,” Ashley said. “It’s going to be exciting to work with someone who brings the kinds of innovative ideas that he has.”

Lomax 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.”

Louis Olivas, assistant vice president for Academic Affair at Arizona State University and president of American Association of Hispanic in Higher Education, echoed Lomax’s sentiment saying, “Based on the experience and skill level that Arne brings to the Secretary of Education job, it’s a fabulous appointment. The Chicago school system he’s coming from has improved significantly during his tenure. He understands the issue of diversity. It bodes well for higher education.”



Karen Branch-Brioso contributed to this story.


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