Duncan Appointment Examined

Before being named President-elect Barack Obama's Education secretary, Arne Duncan ran Chicago schools for seven years. Chester Finn, Jr., president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based, education think tank, offers his insight on the appointment.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In choosing the person to run the Department of Education, President-elect Obama decided to go local. Arne Duncan spoke to the press today and to the president-elect.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ARNE DUNCAN: While many issues will demand your attention, I am convinced that no issue, no issue is more pressing than education. Whether it's fighting poverty, strengthening our economy, or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread.

BLOCK: For more now on Arne Duncan, we turn to Chester Finn. He's the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. That's an education think tank. And Mr. Finn served as assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. He's also been a conservative advocate for charter schools and school reform. Welcome to the program.

CHESTER FINN: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Arne Duncan is a man who runs a very large urban school system, the third-largest school system in the country. What does this pick say about Barack Obama's education agenda?

FINN: Well, it says, first of all, that the president-elect wanted a competent and known quantity in his education secretary. It never hurts to have a Cabinet member who plays basketball with the president. But on the education agenda, I think it says that in the great schism within the Democratic Party on education reform, Arne Duncan is one of the few people that straddles the divide, that actually enables the president-elect to try to have it both ways. And I think this is, from his point of view, a clear plus and might turn out to be a clear plus for the country.

BLOCK: What is the big fight right now, that schism that you speak about, in terms of school reform?

FINN: Well, the schism within the Democratic Party is between the - I'll call it the public school establishment and the teacher unions on the one hand that basically think things are not bad the way they are and don't want anything radically disruptive to be done to them. On the other hand, there's a bunch of pretty ardent and committed education reformers within the Democratic Party who believe both in standards of accountability and also in charter schools and public school choice and maybe even performance pay for teachers.

And in the run-up to this election, it was very clear that Senator Obama was trying to have it both ways - sometimes speaking to one side, sometimes speaking to the other - and leaving the outside observer a little bit mystified as to what his true core beliefs are. Duncan, I think, has true core beliefs of a reformer, but has managed to operationalize them in ways that have not been off-putting to the teachers or the public school folks, at least in Chicago.

BLOCK: It seems like this pick might mystify some as well. It can be viewed in a few different ways. Some might say that it's unusual because of the challenges and the problems that the school system still faces in Chicago or perhaps brilliant because Arne Duncan is a man who understands the challenges that so many educators face, particularly in urban school systems.

FINN: I think that's correct. He's a little bit of a Rorschach figure here. You can read into him a little bit what you want to see there. If you're a teacher union person, you can see someone you can get along with. If you're an ardent reformer, you can see someone that you believe agrees with you on the importance of making these changes. Chicago's made some real gains on Arne Duncan's watch, not super gains, but it's doing better on its own tests and on Illinois state tests. It's got a bunch of innovative schools, including the KIPP schools. And they've empowered their principals to make a lot of decisions. They've made some really good strides. They've got modest but positive results from all this.

BLOCK: Is there anything in Duncan's background that suggests how he might deal with other issues: suburban schools, rural schools, higher education?

FINN: He's a bit of a mystery on most of those issues. As you know, he's not a career educator. He's unlike, let's say, Rod Paige who also was an urban superintendent in the president's home state when George W. Bush brought him in. Duncan, to my knowledge, other than going to college doesn't have any direct experience on higher ed, and I'm not aware how he would deal with suburban public schools. He also doesn't have a lot of Washington experience. And so making his way around Capitol Hill and the myriad traps that await on the No Child Left Behind Act, he's going to probably need some tour guides.

BLOCK: You mentioned that he frequently plays basketball with President-elect Obama. Might that make a difference for someone who at a Cabinet level perhaps doesn't have the same kind access to the president as a secretary of state or the secretary of defense might have?

FINN: Oh, I think it makes a huge difference. It's a major plus for the education department and indeed for the whole field of education to have somebody in that job who is actually the president's buddy.

BLOCK: And at that press conference, he looks like he's actually even taller than President-elect Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FINN: Well, I imagine that they're both pretty fit. And I imagine that they have pretty lively basketball games.

BLOCK: Mr. Finn, thanks very much for speaking with us.

FINN: It's certainly a pleasure. All the best.

BLOCK: Chester Finn is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. That's an education think tank in Washington, D.C.

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