Obama Rejects Reform with Duncan Pick

Published March 1, 2009

Nominating Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan to head up the U.S. Department of Education was like selecting Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

The difference is that with $2.5 billion, Exxon was able to clean up Hazelwood’s mess when the Exxon Valdez crashed and spilled oil along the Alaska shoreline. The $4.5 billion a year spent by CPS during Duncan’s seven years at the helm accomplished nothing.

According to the Consortium on Chicago School Research, only six of every 100 CPS high school freshmen earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25.

That means if Chicago closed its 655 schools and returned the $4.5 billion to taxpayers, eliminating CPS altogether, the city would be only 6 percent behind its current “success” rate. No wonder President Barack Obama sent his children to private school instead of CPS—but much wonder that he would promote to the federal level the man who presided over that wretched performance.

Abysmal Record

The U.S. Secretary of Education wields power and influence over education policy nationwide, particularly concerning urban school reforms. Under Duncan, Chicago’s reforms consisted of closing old high schools and building new, smaller ones.

The results were predictable. According to a December 15, 2008 article in the news magazine Catalyst Chicago, only 31 percent of the city’s high school juniors meet the state’s academic achievement standards, and all but two of the 10 lowest-performing high schools in 2001 had lost ground by 2008.

In seven years, Duncan failed to improve matters because he chose the status quo over advancing “change we can believe in.” He saw the CPS challenge as a management problem, not a structural problem—which is like saying the problem with the former Soviet Union was simply that they had the wrong guys on the Politburo.

Charter Expansion?

Duncan has been characterized as a strong charter school advocate, yet he made very little effort to expand them in Chicago. The city has only 30 charter schools, educating 4 percent of CPS students—and 15 of those schools were created by the Illinois General Assembly in 1997, four years before Duncan’s arrival. The other 15 were created in 2003, shortly after his ascension to chief, and thus cannot be credited to any effort on his part.

In New York City, by contrast, Superintendent Joel Klein has presided over a more than six-fold increase in the number of charter schools since 2002.

The lack of charter school development under Duncan’s leadership is particularly deplorable because CPS’s charter schools are significantly outperforming their neighborhood counterparts in every significant measurement—attendance, graduation rates, and test scores.

Reform Choices Passed Over

In selecting Duncan, Obama chose to placate the teacher unions instead of sparking a serious national dialogue about how we educate our children.

There is a plethora of innovative educators, such as Klein, whom Obama could have tapped to pursue real reform. These include Arlene Ackerman, former chief of San Francisco’s public school system and current CEO of Philadelphia’s schools; Lisa Graham Keegan, former head of Arizona’s state school system; and Michelle Rhee, Washington, DC’s dynamic schools chancellor.

At the news conference announcing his selection, Duncan said education is “the civil rights issue of our generation.” He is correct. Unfortunately, Duncan is a modern-day Orval Faubus, standing between low-income children and a decent education.

Today’s segregationists do not use fire hoses and National Guardsmen—they use politicians like Duncan who strike the right rhetorical chords while preventing competition from flowering for the children most in need of its benefits.

Dan Proft, J.D. ([email protected]) is a principal of the public affairs firm Urquhart Media, LLC and a political commentator for the Don Wade & Roma Morning Show on WLS-AM 890 in Chicago.