(From The Guardian (UK), December 16, 2008)
By DANIEL NASAW and SUZANNE GOLDENBERG
Barack Obama this morning named the chief of the Chicago schools as his secretary of education, promising "a new vision for a 21st education system" that aims to raise expectations of students and educators and to recruit highly qualified teachers.
In a press conference at a Chicago school this morning, the president-elect announced his pick of Arne Duncan, a friend and basketball partner, to head the department of education.
The pick indicates Obama wants fresh but proven thinking at the top of the education department, which directs billions in federal education dollars to states and school districts around the country, and can be enormously influential in setting national education policy and standards.
Obama praised Duncan's pragmatic openness to diverse education theories and practices and his willingness to buck interest groups in pursuing controversial measures like closing failing schools.
"For Arne, school reform isn't just a theory in a book – it's the cause of his life," Obama said. "And the results aren't just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job."
Duncan, 44, is a Chicago native who was raised in Hyde Park, the neighbourhood that Obama made his home. He sparked controversy this fall by proposing the Chicago school system open a gay-friendly high school.
The Harvard graduate, who briefly played professional basketball in Australia, is credited with raising achievement in the nation's third-largest state school district. He is seen as a compromise between education theorists who demand tougher student standards and pay-for-performance schemes for teachers and a camp that would focus on public investment in schools and teacher development, including the powerful teachers unions.
"Duncan has credibility with various factions in the education policy debate and would allow President Obama to avoid publicly choosing sides in that debate in his most high-profile education nomination," Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based group that supports his nomination, wrote in a briefing paper last month.
Duncan joined Chicago's government school system in 1998 as a deputy chief of staff under then school chief Paul Vallas, and became the system's chief executive in 2001. Under his direction the school system has led efforts to improve teacher quality and to restructure failing schools, while raising graduation and college attendance rate.
Obama also outlined his thinking on education, calling for "a 21st century education system" that includes "recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of new teachers" and holding "our schools, teachers and government accountable for results".
Egged on by a reporter, Obama praised Duncan's jump shot, and joked that he has assembled the best basketball-playing cabinet in US history.
The move leaves Obama's cabinet almost finalised. Yesterday, Obama made his most decisive break with the past eight years of George Bush yesterday, claiming the creation of a new energy economy for the US as the defining issue of his presidency and naming a Nobel science laureate and a supporter of Al Gore to his cabinet.
The president-elect turned the roll-out of his new energy and environment team, made at a press conference in Chicago, into a chance to restate his commitment towards putting energy reform at the centre of his economic plan.
His choice of the physicist Steve Chu as his energy secretary and the veteran regulator Carol Browner for the newly created White House post of "climate tsarina" received almost unanimously positive response from environmentalists. The professional credentials of both were seen as a sign of Obama's determination to change America's energy mix and deal with climate change.
Gene Karpinski, the head of the League of Conservation Voters, hailed Browner and Chu as "a green dream team".
Obama held up Chu's appointment as a sign of his determination to break with the Bush administration, which recruited oil industry executives to the energy department and censored government scientific reports on global warming. The environmental protection agency saw its funding and powers drastically reduced.
"His appointment should signal to all that my administration will value science," he said. "We will make decisions based on facts."
But despite Chu's title, the greater responsibility for dealing with issues of energy and climate change falls to Browner, who will coordinate the different government agencies that deal with energy policy.
Browner, who headed the environmental protection agency under Bill Clinton, has worked with Gore, and called climate change "the greatest challenge ever faced". She is expected to pick up on her efforts to give the EPA the authority to regulate the carbon emissions that cause climate change. That initiative was blocked by the Bush administration. She has also supported California's efforts to reduce car emissions at a faster pace than under federal law.
Lisa Jackson, a chemical engineer and former environmental policy official from New Jersey, is to head the EPA, which regulates air quality. Nancy Sutley, an environmental officer in California, becomes head of the president's Council on Environmental Quality.
However, there were some cautionary notes sounded about Obama's choices yesterday. Chu, despite his sterling reputation as scientist, has little experience of politics. There were also reports that Browner would be competing for influence against other presidential advisers, such as General Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser, and Lawrence Summers, his economic adviser.