Obama chooses Duncan as schools chief

December 16, 2008 8:31:08 PM PST
President-elect Barack Obama chose a fellow Chicagoan to be the nation's next education secretary. Arne Duncan, the current CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, will move to Washington into a cabinet post if he's confirmed by the US Senate. Press conf. video: Obama combined his announcement with a brief news conference. (Part 2: Obama answers questions from the press)

Arne Duncan and Barack Obama are neighbors. They are basketball buddies and they see eye-to-eye on education. So now, despite Mayor Daley's desire to keep him here, Duncan is going to Washington.

"When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands on of hands on practitioners," said Obama.

During the campaign, the president-elect turned to Arne Duncan frequently for advice on education, and Tuesday he hailed his friend as someone who's unafraid of tough decisions and not beholden to one ideology.

"Education is the common thread. It is the civil rights issue of our generation," said Arne Duncan, secretary of education designee.

Arne Duncan is hailed as a creative reformer who's championed the effort to close and reconstitute failing schools in Chicago. In fact, the backdrop for Tuesday's announcement was Dodge Renaissance Academy, a former elementary school on the West Side consistently in the basement on test scores. Tuesday, 70 percent of its students meet state averages.

"Mr. Duncan is a good person, a good-hearted person, works well with people, but as far as his legacy here in Chicago, there are some questions about what's going on here," said Julie Woestehoff, Parents United for Responsible Education.

Some education watchdog groups are cautious about Duncan's selection. The turnaround story, they contend, has considerable PR spin, and the oft -mentioned academic improvements are not what they appear to be.

The Chicago Teachers Union declined to pass judgment on the wisdom of Duncan's selection.

"I think the idea that we've been able to have a working relationship has been successful," said Marilyn Stewart, Chicago Teachers Union president.

Arne Duncan, to be sure, has many fans.

"He's been always thinking outside the box. He's not a superintendent that stays inside the box," said Mayor Daley.

The mayor, who picked Duncan from relative obscurity seven years ago, raved about him Tuesday, and so did Duncan's mother and sister who say education is his life's passion.

"He knows how to get things done , he doesn't operate out of his ego or out of selfishness. He really wants what's best for the kids, and the country, and he can do it," said Sara Duncan, sister.

Duncan says his first job is to assemble a good team. He'll be looking at potential changes to the No Child Left Behind law but wouldn't commit to what they might be or how they'd come about. "We need to listen nationally," he said.

As far as who replaces Duncan as Chicago schools CEO, Barbara Eason-Watkins is the chief education officer, considered by some to be an early frontrunner. The mayor will choose, and Tuesday, he said the choice need not be limited to anyone already working inside the system.

Who's next?

Arne Duncan is credited with helping to raise student test scores in his seven years leading Chicago Public Schools. So what's next for the district as Duncan moves on to Washington?

Chicago Public Schools has undergone several major changes in the last few years. The mayor took over the schools in 1995. Paul Vallas brought some controversial ideas. And Arne Duncan has pushed through some new concepts in education. Now Duncan's departure leaves the opportunity for more change.

Duncan heads to Washington and is leaving a vacancy at Chicago Public Schools.

"It's really up to the mayor to decide. We have a great team in place and want to keep building on the progress," said Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education designee.

Duncan will be the next United States secretary of education. For the last seven years he has been the chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools.

Some of those who will remain in Chicago look to the mayor for the next CEO.

"Arne Duncan is a star. When he started seven years ago, he was younger. Following Paul, he's done a remarkable job, and I'm sure the mayor will find someone to step into those shoes," said Martin Koldyke, education advisor.

Tuesday, Mayor Daley praised Duncan's work and said the search will begin for Duncan's replacement, looking at some familiar candidates.

"There's a lot of names around, both inside and outside the system," said Mayor Daley.

Barbara Eason-Watkins is the Chicago Public Schools' chief education officer. Duncan regularly credits her for taking his vision into the classroom. She was an award-winning former principal before becoming the chief education officer.

Eason-Watkins name has been brought up as a possible replacement but she declined comment Tuesday.

In the meantime, some are closely watching to see who will be the new schools' CEO.

"You really need someone who understands how schools work, how teachers react to policies, how principals react to policies. Because some policy makers can come up with something great on paper, but if they don't understand the nitty gritty of what happens in schools they're not going to get very far," said Linda Lenz, Catalyst Magazine.

"The person should definitely know what a child needs to learn and what a teacher needs to know to teach," said Marilyn Stewart, Chicago Teachers Union.

The Chicago Teachers Union president says the teachers support education reform, although she has disagreed with Duncan on how to do that. She hopes the new CEO will listen to teachers suggestions about how to improve education for Chicago children.


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