Duncan Nomination Wins Broad Bipartisan Support

Published February 1, 2009

When President-elect Barack Obama appointed Arne Duncan for U.S. Secretary of Education in December, analysts from both sides of the aisle recognized the move as a compromise among various factions in the education community and applauded the appointee’s reputation for innovation and reform.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO “has straddled two competing factions of the education community: the teachers unions, who push for more funding and smaller classes, and a movement that favors accountability and free-market-style incentives and looks to hold schools and teachers more accountable for student performance.”

Similarly, The New York Times deemed Duncan “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.”

Some Differences

The school reform community applauded Duncan’s support for charter schools, public school choice, and increased state flexibility and autonomy. Duncan is also on record as supporting merit pay for teachers and administrators, a position that has earned only lukewarm support from the president-elect.

Obama’s campaign promises centered on modernizing schools, universal government-supported preschool, government higher education tuition assistance, increased teacher pay, and more charter schools.

His call for increased teacher pay was for a limited approach—only within the confines of rewarding teacher mentors, those working in rural and inner-city schools, and teachers excelling in the classroom. He staunchly opposes tax credit and voucher scholarships.

Seeking More Tax Money

Obama and Duncan both say there is a need for greater federal funding of education. That concerns some in the education community. Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said Duncan’s reform record in Chicago might not translate to national success.

“Arne Duncan has not come out in favor of giving all parents an easy choice between public and private schools, which is the only reform capable of achieving the results that he, the president-elect, and American families seek,” Coulson said. “Duncan may have shown himself inventive and hardworking with his ‘within the box’ public school tinkering in Chicago, but when you’re working in a creaking, dilapidated government monopoly, ‘within the box’ tweaks just aren’t good enough.

“If education is ever going to witness the stunning progress we’ve seen in other fields over the past hundred years, we’re going to have to organize it the same way we organize the rest of our economy, as a free, parent-driven marketplace,” Coulson continued.

Charter Champion

Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a research group in Virginia, was likewise guardedly optimistic.

“During Duncan’s seven years leading CPS, some exciting innovations moved forward, and there were some measurable indications of academic progress district-wide. But he also presided over some of the nation’s least effective bilingual education programs, and more than a third of Latinos aged 16-24 were high school dropouts,” Soifer noted.

But Soifer also noted “his appointment is good news for charter schools—there are some truly exciting things happening in Chicago charters.”

Loud Applause

Other members of the education policy community applauded the president’s choice.

Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Virginia, called Duncan “a great pick for the school reform community. He’s a huge fan of charter schools, a supporter of merit pay, and appreciates the challenges that inner-city Catholic schools are facing. He’s been diplomatic in his reform efforts but isn’t afraid to shake things up. Now what’s important is that his deputies are equally committed to education reform and not afraid to break with the defenders of the status quo.”

The direction the Obama administration and Duncan choose to take will be evident shortly, with the unveiling of the FY 2010 budget, expected in February. It will provide parents and taxpayers a clear picture of the new administration’s plans for education policy, analysts say.

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a research assistant in domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.