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Our Unusually Powerful Secretary of Education

arne-duncanNewt Gingrich has approvingly called Arne Duncan Obama’s “one real bipartisan appointment.” But liberals like Amy Wilkins, who runs a nonprofit for disadvantaged students, has said of Duncan’s reform platform, “The hard heads and soft hearts and replacing the softheaded and hardhearted.”

It may be difficult to situate Duncan firmly on the political spectrum, but according to a profile in The New Yorker, two facts about Arne Duncan are crystal clear: he’s got $70 billion to hand out to states–far more than any Secretary of Education has ever had–and he’s not afraid to piss people off.

Duncan’s approach to education reform is an interesting mix free-market manifesto and informed compassion for underprivileged students. Growing up in Chicago (he and Obama have been close friends for decades), Duncan witnessed some of his peers get killed on the streets. “Nobody who went to college died young,” he said. His mother ran an after-school program for mostly poor, undereducated kids, which deepened Duncan’s belief that schools are “lying” to underachieving kids–letting them sneak by or slip through the cracks–and must be held responsible.

As Secretary of Education, Duncan’s formula for holding schools accountable is highly controversial. A firm believer in charter schools and performance pay, Duncan had no problem, as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, with shutting down poorly performing schools and replacing them with an entirely new staff.  He plans to use his unprecedented education budget to take a similarly hard-line approach with states.

For now, teachers’ unions are, for the most part, cautiously optimistic about Duncan. This is because of his commitment to changes like rewriting No Child Left Behind so “we have very clear goals and a high bar but flexibility on how to get there.” According to the president of the N.E.A., “I don’t believe we’ll ever disagree on fundamental goals and purposes.”

It’ll be interesting to see, though, what teachers have to say about Duncan a few months from now. Of his willingness to award or deny grants to states both on their performance, Duncan says, “When we have a lot more losers than winners, and my popularity plummets, they’ll know we’re for real and this is not education politics as usual.”

It’s clear that “education politics as usual” has been failing students for years, but it remains to be seen whether Duncan’s free-market approach is the answer.

Photo: Alternative Education Resource Organization

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