CHICAGO - President-elect Barack Obama officially tapped Chicago public schools chief Arne Duncan for U.S. education secretary yesterday, billing him as a "hands-on" leader instead of an ivory tower academic.
"When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners," Obama said at Dodge Renaissance Academy in Chicago. "When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn't blink."
Obama said Duncan championed creating charter schools even when it was controversial and shut down schools even if it was unpopular. He also noted improved test scores, fewer dropouts and ACT gains during Duncan's tenure.
Duncan said he is "deeply, deeply grateful to be part of the Obama team" and touted education as the nation's most pressing issue.
"It is the civil rights issue of our generation. And it is the one sure path to a more fair, equal and just society," Duncan said.
Duncan got to know Obama on the basketball court as both rapidly rose through their respective ranks. Obama joked about having the best basketball-playing Cabinet in U.S. history. Duncan played professionally in Australia for several years. Obama acknowledged that Duncan had a better jump shot.
After the news conference, Duncan told reporters that No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's major education overhaul, had some good parts but he would be evaluating it.
Mayor Richard M. Daley said Obama's choice of Duncan is a consequence of his work in reforming Chicago's schools.
"We have come a long way, and Arne Duncan for eight years has been at the helm of this. He has done a tremendous job taking a system that was collapsing and making it what it is today," Daley said. "He understands failing schools. He understands the possibility of changing schools around with the help of the business community, the help of the employees, the teachers, new principals, new teachers, getting the parents involved.
"No other city has done what we're doing," Daley said. "He can bring the same enthusiasm, excitement, the same background [to the Education Department]. ... Chicago has put education on the map."