Obama chooses education reformer Duncan

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President-elect Barack Obama announced his choice for Department of Education secretary on Tuesday, lauding Arne Duncan as a true reformer but not mentioning his plan for the department’s biggest challenge - what to do with No Child Left Behind.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan used the word “reform” six times, but did not address President Bush’s education program even though he often promised voters he would reform it if elected.

Meanwhile, a Democratic official said Mr. Obama will name former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as Department of Agriculture secretary Wednesday. Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado is expected to be nominated as Department of Interior secretary.

No Child Left Behind became law in 2002 but has drawn the ire of teachers, lawmakers and parents ever since. The largest complaint is that the program never was fully funded, something Mr. Obama frequently noted on the campaign circuit.

Rank-and-file teachers have said No Child Left Behind forces them to teach for a test and some states have attempted to opt out of the program or use their own standards.

In September, Mr. Obama told a crowd in Virginia that the goals of No Child Left Behind were good but that without “real measures” of progress, teaching for the test becomes the norm and “makes for uninspiring teachers and uninspired students.”

“We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind by providing the funding that was promised, giving states the resources they need, and finally meeting our commitment to special education,” Mr. Obama told the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in July.

Though it did not come up at the announcement for Mr. Duncan’s nomination, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he hopes it’s a sign the education program will be significantly changed, saying he wants to get to work “reforming the No Child Left Behind Act so it can work for all students.”

Mr. Duncan is CEO of Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the nation. He has been recognized for helping turn it around and boost performance and graduation rates.

“For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book, it’s the cause of his life,” Mr. Obama told reporters at Chicago’s Dodge Renaissance Academy, a school that Mr. Duncan helped to overhaul. “When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn’t blink. He’s not beholden to any one ideology, and he doesn’t hesitate for one minute to do what needs to be done.”

Both men support merit pay for teachers, a position that once earned an Obama speech to the teacher’s union a chorus of boos.

AFT President Randi Weingarten did not mention the disagreement over merit pay but lauded Mr. Obama’s pick, saying Mr. Duncan showed “a genuine commitment to what we see as the essential priorities for an incoming education secretary” during his work in Chicago.

“There may be times when we will differ, but we believe we will agree fully that America’s students and teachers need an education secretary committed to focusing on real solutions for closing the achievement gap and providing every child with a rigorous, well-rounded education that prepares him or her for college, work and life,” she said.

U.S. Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue said Mr. Duncan “has proven to be a reformer, tackling tough issues such as teacher accountability, the closing of low-performing schools, and support for charter schools.”

Mr. Obama said Mr. Duncan, a Harvard basketball player who once played on professional a team in Australia and sometimes joins him on the courts - is a pragmatist.

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About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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