What Does Obama's Education Secretary Teach Us?

If President-elect Obama were interested in distancing himself from Chicago politics, he didn’t do it Tuesday.  He picked as his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the chief of Chicago Public Schools in order to de-emphasize the President-elect’s ties to the Corrupt City of Big Shoulders.

Duncan has a degree not in education but in sociology (from Harvard, of course).

The praise for Duncan is flooding in from all around, including President Bush’s Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, who said earlier this week of Duncan, “I consider him a fellow reformer and someone who cares deeply about students. I think he’d be a great choice.”

Duncan is characterized as a reformer who has managed not to antagonize teacher unions. Writes the New York Times’ David Brooks of the Duncan pick, “He represents a compromise choice in the debate that has divided Democrats in recent months over the proper course for public-school policy after the Bush years.”

Duncan had a very public spat with former domestic terrorist and education radical — and Obama “acquaintance” — William Ayers.  Ayers criticized Duncan for his fervent support of "Renaissance 2010," a plan started by Chicago Mayor Daley in 2004 to close 500 failing schools permanently or to reopen them as reformed schools within six years.  Said Ayers of Duncan, “People in power desire nothing more than obedience and easy agreement, but this is not the proper role for either reformers or scholars."  Duncan shot back, “Academics are supposed to stick to the facts and remain impartial, but Ayers … [has] clearly failed the test."

Anybody who has riled William Ayers can’t be all bad, right?  Maybe not, but plenty bad enough.

Duncan has put in place a Harvard-designed plan by which up to 5,000 freshmen at 20 Chicago public high schools will get cash for good — and even average — grades.  
An A nets $50, a B equals $35 and a C still brings in $20. Students will get half the money upfront, with the remainder paid upon graduation. A straight-A student could earn up to $4,000 by the end of his or her sophomore year.

“The majority of our students don’t come from families with a lot of economic wealth. I’m always trying to level the playing field,” said Duncan. “This is the kind of incentive that middle-class families have had for decades.”

This reporter was educated in the public schools of Cleveland.  I don’t recall being paid cash by my middle-class parents for good grades.

Further, Duncan pushed a controversial plan for a gay high school, calling it Pride Campus.  Said Duncan, “If you look at national studies, you see gay and lesbian students with high dropout rates…Studies show they are disproportionately homeless,” Duncan said. “I think there is a niche there we need to fill.”

In addition to the expected opponents of Duncan’s gay high school, some gay rights advocates said the move would segregate these students and said the district should work more on fostering acceptance by mainstream students, teachers and other school officials.

Maybe the worst news for aggressive public school reformers is that the choice was not New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein who has made enemies of the powerful teachers unions for insisting that teachers and schools be held accountable for the performance of students.  

Obama has picked a man whom many but not all in the public education debate feel comfortable with.  But at a time when our public school systems are in a shambles, a bold choice willing to make enemies within the education establishment might have brought change education reformers can believe in.  

We’re a long way down the road from when President Reagan proposed in 1980 abolishing the Department of Education.  Arne Duncan, on the other hand, wants to increase further federal control over state public education by increasing the funding of President Bush’s and Senator Ted Kennedy’s federal No Child Left Behind.

Lord Tennyson wrote, “He makes no friend who never made a foe.”  Can a man who has no foes within the education establishment be a friend of the American people?