Is Obama's Education Pick the Sarah Palin of the School System?

SAN FRANCISCO -- When President-elect Barack Obama recently named Chicago Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan as his choice for secretary of education, the reaction was a chorus of praise in the national media for a man they hailed as a true reformer and passionate educator. The consensus was that Duncan was great at building consensus, tough on the teachers' union, and committed to the kids. And, incidentally, he was pretty good on the basketball court.

Among community, parent and youth organizers in Chicago, however, the response to Obama naming his good friend and sometime basketball partner as education secretary was not unanimously positive.

"I was on black talk radio last night and people who called in were almost heartsick about it. Their candidate making a pick like this is an enormous disappointment," said Julie Woestehoff , director of Parents United for Responsible Education. "People are concerned he doesn't have the educational background and that he's not even qualified for the position he's in. It's really a slap in face."

Duncan, 44, was just 36 when he was appointed to replace Paul Vallas, who left Chicago to head Philadelphia's public schools. He served as Valla's deputy but had no prior credentials as an educational administrator. Duncan's seven years as Chicago schools' chief earned mixed grades, advocates say. While most agree that Duncan was sincere about education reform, they also say he stumbled badly in enacting school reforms and in relations with the African-American and Latino communities most affected by his plans. Many also said he was hamstrung by Chicago's strong-mayor political system and unable to enact his own reforms. Several of those interviewed said they would not make negative criticism of Duncan on the record because of their concerns that it could hurt them and their organizations. "We all want to do business with him," said one Chicago organizer who asked to remain anonymous.

Duncan's record has been shaped by his avid support of charter schools and by Mayor Richard M. Daley's Renaissance 2010 initiative to close hundreds of schools and reopen them as new and improved after a year of building renovation and complete staff renewal. Duncan inherited the plan and has pursued it enthusiastically but without planning for the impacts or doing outreach to communities.

"They did that to a handful of schools," said Woestehoff. "Then we were able to stop that by quoting research that it's not good to move kids around, that it sets them back."

Woestefhoff noted that Dodge Academy, where Obama announced his choice of Arne Duncan, was one of the reformed schools that was closed for a year. "When it reopened, few of the original kids were there," she said. "It has 400 kids now. Only 12 of the original kids are there in its second year of turnout."

One of the biggest battles was in the predominantly black Kenwood Oakland neighborhood where Duncan in 2004 announced the closing of 20 of its 22 schools. "We were involved in quite a heated battle to keep our schools open," said Jay Travis, director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. "We pushed for better engagement with the community on some of these issues. Our recent experiences with Arne have been more positive."

Travis said Duncan, to his credit, was eventually open to working with advocates and a student group, Voices, which organized to have a place at table of school reform. So far, just seven schools in Kenwood Oakland were reopened, she said, and "some of the new schools turned out to be okay, but they received millions in resources. They became the poster children."

The school closings triggered unanticipated conflicts by transplanting students without any preparation. "In the first year of closings, Austin High School was closed and a lot of students got pushed into Clemente and Wells high schools. They were on the upswing," said Brian Brady, director of the youth group Mikvah Challenge. But the injection of 10 percent new students into Wells and Clemente destabilized the once-stable high schools, says Brady. "He went at a speed his bureaucracy couldn't handle and then made some adjustments," Brady said. "He made mistakes but he'll admit it."

Many high schools saw their security deteriorate as students were sent across gang lines into different neighborhoods and school cultures, said one Chicago organizer who asked to remain anonymous. "The receiving schools were terribly impacted so kids going to them faced violence. And kids there faced violence," she said. "Communities have cultures, and you're crossing gang and ethnic boundaries, and to do that without thought is so worrisome."

She said that Duncan erred by relying on "outside professional reformers" instead of the people who have the greatest stake in school reform -- parents and students. "It is a political challenge because people hate the school closings," she said, "but they could love them if anyone involved them in the process because they are often able to target schools that need change."

Duncan also has his boosters in Chicago, and education consultant John Ayers, is among them. "I'm a big fan of Arne Duncan," Ayers said. "The guy is a mensch. He loves working with kids. This is a guy trying to help low-income kids get a good education." Ayers, who worked for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, predicted that Duncan would be an effective national education leader and one who would successfully address the needs of urban public schools -- despite not being a "politician."

"He'll need to hire some tough political operatives and negotiators," said Ayers. "I think he's going to undo a lot of the worst of NCLB [No Child Left Behind Act]. He's going to attack NCLB, keep parts that are good, like accountability, and push for more freedom for teachers and principals."

Even Duncan's critics say that he may be a better policymaker at the federal level because he's been too constrained under Daley's iron control of the schools.

"Arne's great hedge is I don't think he believes he can radically change the Chicago schools' current system. He was placing bets outside the bureaucracy. Chicago is a beast," said Brian Brady. "Duncan is more in sync with Obama. It will be interesting to see who he really is."

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