Obama Picks A Moderate On Education
(From The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2008)
By COLLIN LEVY
Barack Obama picked Arne Duncan only partly for his skills on the basketball court. As secretary of education, he will be running one of the administration's most important finesse games.
The CEO of the Chicago public schools and the ultimate diplomat, Mr. Duncan rises to the rim at a moment when teachers unions are, for the first time, facing opposition within the Democratic Party from young idealists who favor education reform. They want to recapture what should always have been a natural issue for Democrats: helping underprivileged kids get out of failing public schools.
Considering the reviews from the right and the left, you might be confused about whether Mr. Duncan is a signal that Mr. Obama's administration is lining up behind the reformers or supporting the status quo. Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor (and über reformer) Michelle Rhee endorsed the pick, as did President Bush's Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings.
But Mr. Duncan also has fans among traditional Democrats, whose main interest is keeping the teachers unions happy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the choice, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised that he would enjoy a speedy confirmation.
So what should we make of Mr. Duncan? One promising clue comes from a group called Democrats for Education Reform, part of the growing voice for reform in the party. DFER is known to cheer Democrats brave enough to support charter schools and other methods of extending options to parents. Joe Williams, the group's executive director, predicted that Mr. Duncan will help break the "ideological and political gridlock to promote new, innovative and experimental ideas."
In Chicago, Mr. Duncan is credited with laying out plans to close 100 underperforming public schools. Fans also note that he helped raise the cap on charter schools to 30 from 15.
But his record is short of miraculous. Why have a cap on charter schools at all? And the teachers unions extracted plenty of concessions, including a ban on new charters operating multiple campuses.
Mr. Duncan is certainly no bomb thrower. His role instead will be to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of young idealists in the party, like DFER and the tens of thousands of young people who join Teach For America each year. This group, which continues to attract highly skilled young people, is fast creating the new Democratic elite in the education arena while challenging the education establishment.
At forums during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, several big-city mayors lined up with reform principles against union demands. Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., said that "As Democrats we have been wrong on education, and it's time to get it right." Washington, D.C.'s Adrian Fenty, a strong backer of Ms. Rhee's effort to negotiate tough terms with the unions, remarked that the politics of school reform are changing fast.
At one DFER event last year, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. used the word "monopoly" — a major affront to teachers unions — to describe failing schools. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third ranking Democrat in the House, is another important convert to the idea of more parental choice in education.
It's all a bit delicate, which makes Mr. Duncan Mr. Obama's man for a good reason. He's known for a flexibility that allows him to float between the traditional Democratic strongholds and the new wave of reformers in the party. With proper implementation, Mr. Obama could accomplish on education reform what President Bill Clinton did for welfare reform — taking a previously Republican issue and transforming it from within the left.
But unions aren't about to slink off into the sunset. If they're losing some of their clout at the national level, they maintain their grip locally. In many places, teachers angle to usurp the language of the reformers while pushing their own agenda. Thus "merit pay" has been twisted into a system that bears little resemblance to the original concept of paying teachers for teaching kids successfully. Instead, it has become pay-for-credential, offering salary bumps for continuing education and other qualifications, with no anchor to proven results in the classroom.
Mr. Duncan is a reformer at heart, if one who works collegially within the system. But in the end, much will depend on his boss. Whether Mr. Obama is an artful fence walker or a real agent of change — on schools or anything else — is a mystery the coming year may finally clear up.
Ms. Levy, based in Washington, is a senior editorial writer at the Journal.