Threading the needle at Education

THREADING THE NEEDLE AT EDUCATION…. When Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were rumored to be leading candidates for Barack Obama’s cabinet, there was considerable debate. But the debate over who the president-elect would pick for the Secretary of Education has been every bit as contentious, albeit not nearly as high-profile.

Competing camps of education policy have been at it for weeks, loosely organized into the “reform” camp, which supports additional testing and the expansion of charter schools, and the “traditionalist” camp, more in line with teachers’ unions. Obama has done his level best to convince both that he’s sympathetic to their concerns, and many were waiting to see the cabinet pick to determine where Obama’s true loyalties lie.

As it happens, Obama made his selection and managed to stay on the fence at the same time.

Arne Duncan, the Chicago schools superintendent known for taking tough steps to improve schools while maintaining respectful relations with teachers and their unions, is President-elect Barack Obama’s choice as secretary of education, Democratic officials said Monday.

Mr. Duncan, a 44-year-old Harvard graduate, has raised achievement in the nation’s third-largest school district and often faced the ticklish challenge of shuttering failing schools and replacing ineffective teachers, usually with improved results.

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.

In June, rival nationwide groups of educators circulated competing educational manifestos, with one group espousing a get-tough policy based on pushing teachers and administrators harder to raise achievement, and another arguing that schools alone could not close the racial achievement gap and urging new investments in school-based health clinics and other social programs to help poor students learn.

Mr. Duncan was the only big-city superintendent to sign both manifestos.

He argued that the nation’s schools needed to be held accountable for student progress, but also needed major new investments, new talent and new teacher-training efforts.

Seyward Darby, who’s been covering the debate within the education circles, noted last night that Duncan will be a “relief” to the reform camp, but “also appeals to the more traditional Democratic establishment and teachers’ unions.” Indeed, it’s worth noting that Duncan, while generally considered a reformer, was also recently praised by the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, who complimented Duncan as somehow “actually reaches out and tries to do things in a collaborative way.”

Marc Ambinder added, “Like Obama, Duncan favors merit pay for teachers and administrators, but he’s been cautious about pushing the concept too far without input from teachers’ unions.”

I don’t doubt that some from the traditionalist camp will be grumbling this morning, but the mild disappointment will likely be tempered by the relief that Obama didn’t pick NYC’s Joel Klein or Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.