In choosing Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan for secretary of education this week, President-elect Barack Obama tapped a leader with demonstrated hands-on experience navigating the pitfalls of urban public policy debates and the conflicting demands of rival political constituencies.
Mr. Duncan, a Harvard graduate and longtime ally of Mr. Obama's, has headed Chicago's public school system since 2001, where he earned a reputation for moving forcefully to improve troubled schools without alienating teachers and their unions.
As Mr. Obama's education secretary, he would be ideally positioned to mediate between two contending groups: advocates of greater school accountability and tougher teacher standards, and those who believe government isn't doing nearly enough to help failing schools.
Having served as superintendent of the nation's third-largest school system, Mr. Duncan showed his dedication to innovation as well as a keen awareness of the problems facing urban schools when he shut down the failing Dodge Renaissance Academy on Chicago's West Side in 2002, then reopened it as a lab school staffed by classroom teachers seeking advanced education degrees. The experiment has been cited as a model of reform that could be replicated in failing schools across the country.
Mr. Obama indicated a similar sensitivity to the problems of cities by his choice of Shaun Donovan, head of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, as secretary of housing and urban development. Mr. Donovan is best known as a leading advocate of affordable housing initiatives in New York and elsewhere. As HUD secretary, he could build on that reputation by revitalizing the agency's Clinton-era HOPE VI initiative, which provided money for cities like Baltimore to demolish crime-ridden high-rise public housing complexes and replace them with new, mixed-income, low-rise developments and urban green space.
The president-elect is also said to be considering Baltimore's outspoken health commissioner, Joshua M. Sharfstein, to head the Food and Drug Administration. Though Baltimore would be hard put to replace Dr. Sharfstein at a time when the city is facing multiple challenges of HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and high infant mortality, the city's loss would surely be the federal government's gain. All three of these men could be powerful and knowledgeable advocates for urban America at the highest levels of the incoming administration.