Chicago Schools Chief To Be Education Secretary

President-elect Obama is reported to have picked Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan to serve as his education secretary. Duncan, who has run Chicago schools for seven years, is known for his efforts to reform urban public education. An announcement is expected Tuesday.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan as education secretary. Duncan is known for his efforts to reform urban public education. Joining us now is NPR's education correspondent, Claudio Sanchez. Claudio, tell us a little bit more about Arne Duncan.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Arne Duncan has been Barack Obama's friend and adviser since the late - or middle 1990s, I should say. He also helped shape the education agenda that he debated, to some degree, during the primaries, as well as during his campaign against Mr. McCain.

NORRIS: Duncan comes from a big, urban school system. What does his nomination say about Obama's education agenda?

SANCHEZ: He reflects the priorities that Mr. Obama has often cited as crucial for reforming public education in America, and that is dealing with urban school issues, the black-white gap, the need for innovation and entrepreneurship in urban schools to be able to break many, many decades of stagnant school reform. The other issue here, though, is that Mr. Duncan brings pretty good relations with the teachers unions. I mean, teachers unions have always been at odds with, certainly, school reformers who view the unions often as the obstacle to school reform. Mr. Duncan brings a relatively good, you know, relationship with unions.

At the same time, though, he's clearly a reformer in the sense that he has opened the floodgates for charter schools in Chicago, for example. But he has also invited entrepreneurs to Chicago to create what I've often considered to be a hybrid school system - a hybrid system that is both publicly funded, but privately run, increasingly. Keep in mind that this is a city that was once considered the worst school system in the nation. Under Mr. Duncan and his predecessor, there's been an enormous amount of change, change that many urban school systems see as fruitful and, to some degree, very, very effective.

NORRIS: What are the major issues facing the next education secretary?

SANCHEZ: Well, the next secretary of education is essentially going to have to speak for Mr. Obama's agenda. It would be hard to predict whether the first one hundred days of Mr. Obama's administration are going to focus on education. Clearly, the economic downturn has trumped everything. But it would be fair to say that the first thing that Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan are going to have to tackle is the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, putting more money into the kinds of reforms that Mr. Duncan knows works, also opening again the secretary of education's office to entrepreneurs.

I mean, there's been an issue there with, you know, teachers unions on the one hand saying, you know, you can't just give away the shop. You have to allow teachers to become full partners in reform. Mr. Duncan brings, I think, the union voice or will invite the union voice to have a much greater say. But on the other hand, I think he's wide open, as Mr. Obama is, to experimentation, and that includes people who aren't in public education and who are at odds with teachers unions.

And finally, and most importantly perhaps, is that as part of Mr. Obama's economic package, they're going to have to tackle the student loan issue, the student loan crisis in this country - parents who can not afford to pay for their kids' college education. That's going to be a major, major push on the part of the administration. And Mr. Duncan, who has some connections to higher ed, is - well, we'll see whether he's well-suited to take on that issue when he first comes in.

NORRIS: College affordability was a big part of the Obama campaign.

SANCHEZ: Exactly.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Claudio Sanchez. Thanks so much, Claudio.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

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Chicago Schools Chief To Head U.S. Education Dept.

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan to serve as education secretary, NPR confirmed Monday.

Obama planned to announce his choice Tuesday morning, The Associated Press reported.

Duncan has run the country's third-biggest school district for the past seven years. He has focused on improving struggling schools, closing those that fail. Obama highlighted this work by choosing a turnaround story for Duncan — Dodge Renaissance Academy, a school Duncan closed and then reopened — for the announcement.

The two had visited the school together three years ago, although they share more than an interest in education: Duncan has played pickup basketball with Obama since the 1990s. In fact, Duncan co-captained the Harvard basketball team and played professionally in Australia before he had a career in education.

Duncan ran an education nonprofit on Chicago's South Side before working in Chicago Public Schools under former chief Paul Vallas, now the schools chief in New Orleans.

Obama's choice has been anticipated, and argued about, by education groups anxious to see what Obama will do to fix the country's ailing schools.

Obama managed throughout his campaign to avoid taking sides in the contentious debate between reform advocates and teachers' unions over the direction of education and the fate of President Bush's No Child Left Behind accountability law.

The selection of Duncan may satisfy both factions. Reform advocates wanted a big-city school superintendent who, like Duncan, has sought accountability for schools and teachers. And teachers' unions, an influential segment of the party base, wanted an advocate for their members; they have said they believe Duncan is willing to work with them.

"Arne Duncan actually reaches out and tries to do things in a collaborative way," Randi Weingarten, head of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, told The Associated Press earlier this month.

Duncan deliberately straddled the factions earlier this year when he signed competing manifestos from each side of the debate.

In the education debate, the competing sides break down over the degree to which teachers and schools should be held accountable for how kids are learning, and the role test scores should play in making that determination.

At the heart of the dispute: No Child Left Behind, the law that has grown as unpopular as George W. Bush, the lame-duck president who championed it.

The reform group agrees with the law's general principle of penalties for schools if test scores fail to improve, although nearly everyone agrees the law has problems that need fixing.

The union coalition says test scores aren't the only measure, and that factors far beyond the classroom affect how well kids learn.

From The Associated Press and NPR reports.

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