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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An Endorsement of Sorts for Arne Duncan

In the Sun Times today, there is this article by Deborah Lynch excoriating Obama's pick for Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. So, how is this an endorsement? Well, Lynch is the former President of Chicago's Teacher's Union. If the teacher's union is against Duncan, then those are exactly the sort of enemies that make him endearing to me. Of course, it isn't merely the source but rather the substance of her opposition.

How can Mr. Duncan be so rewarded for a strategy of giving up on low-performing schools serving primarily low-income children? It is ironic that Duncan is now moving to the Cabinet post when he essentially has admitted that he does not know how to manage low-performing schools. His entire approach has been to close underperforming schools and turn their management over to outside organizations, many with no track records of school reform. Yet during his tenure, the Chicago Public Schools graduation rate remained stubbornly at barely 50 percent.


This philosophy of viewing the problem as bad teachers, and their union contract as an obstacle to reform, resulted in the Renaissance 2010 model, unveiled in 2004. Since then, Duncan has closed dozens of schools and created a private district-within-a-district of 80,000 former CPS students, all funded by public education dollars.

These schools have no union staff members and no local school councils and, for the most part, no accountability. Charter and contract schools do have to take state-required tests. CPS claims that many of these schools do better than our neglected neighborhood schools, yet reputable, independent, national studies of charter schools yield inconclusive results.

Duncan's latest twist on closing underperforming schools is called the school "turnaround." About two dozen school closures and turnarounds are about to be announced this month. Parents, staff and students pleading for a reprieve year after year became an embarrassment to Duncan and Mayor Daley. Now they just fire all the staff in designated schools.

Frankly, even though Duncan is from Chicago, I hadn't heard much about him until he was selected. I just assume that Chicago's Public Schools are in perpetual decline. That said, I had heard that Duncan implemented a policy in which failing schools were closed down. Only now that I read how the Teacher's Union feels about the policy do I see just how effective it was. Duncan is also in favor of alternative school choices like charter schools as well as merit pay. All of this is opposed by the Teacher's Union.

Yet, it is one thing to be for some policy. It is quite another to actually implement in a way that matters. That will earn you friends and enemies. Duncan's support for merit pay, charter schools, and closing failing schools had to be effective for that's the only way he could have made such an enemy of the Teacher's Union. Any enemy of the Teacher's Union is immediately a political ally of mine.

Obviously, it is one thing to implement policy in the City of Chicago and quite another in the whole U.S. Yet, earning the ire of the Teacher's Union means he must have been quite effective here, and that bodes well for his effectiveness nationally.

With less than a week before taking over, it appears that Obama's education policy will be the one that I most endeared to. While I believe he will rely far too much on government spending, he is also serious about merit pay, school choice and closing schools that fail. All of those are policies that the Teacher's Union virulently opposes and all not coincidentally that I am strongly in favor of.

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