With the Democratic Party embroiled in internal debate over public school reform, it is very much like Barack Obama to tap Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan as education secretary. Duncan is one of the only prominent education leaders in the country who signed both the Broader, Bolder and the Education Equality Project manifestos. Duncan, a longtime Obama friend and adviser, has shown particular interest in early childhood education, a major part of Obama's education and anti-poverty agenda. And he sends his own kids to Chicago public schools. Here's hoping he'll live in the city when he moves to D.C. and continue his family's track record of support for the public system.
But although Duncan is being hailed as a compromise between free-market education reformers and teachers' unions, we shouldn't delude ourselves as to the nature of Duncan's relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union. Duncan closed schools (never a popular move), removed teachers from the classroom, and supported charter schools, which now make up about 10 percent of the Chicago system. To get a sense of the grassroots opposition to Duncan, check out the Caucus of Rank and File Teachers and Substance News. Notably, these two groups, critics from the left, believe the Chicago Teachers Union is corrupt and little better than management at representing teachers' and students' needs; on the other hand, a more centrist observer, Alexander Russo, writes that Duncan hasn't been tough enough in his negotiations with the union, and should have done more to attract middle class and affluent families to Chicago's public schools. Russo also snarks that national union chief Randi Weingarten's recent kind words about Duncan's relationship with the CTU could hardly have been made "with a straight face."
Any pick of an actual superintendent to head the Department of Education, as opposed to a governor relatively ignorant of the nitty gritty of education debates, is a move by Obama in the direction of serious, hands-on reform. That's good news, I think, for those of us -- regardless of ideology -- who hope education will become a first tier issue under the Obama administration.