Arne Duncan, head of Chicago's public schools, will likely be confirmed as U.S. secretary of education, according to the general consensus among a diverse group of education observers that has responded enthusiastically to his nomination. The 44-year-old Chicago native and onetime pro-basketball player goes to a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
President-elect Barack Obama nominated Duncan on December 16, saying he was someone who doesn't blink when faced with tough decisions. Obama and Duncan are longtime friends. Beyond the Windy City connection, they both graduated from Harvard University and play basketball together. If confirmed, Duncan will leave his post as head of the nation's third-largest school system and take over the federal Department of Education. As education secretary, he will oversee 4,200-employees and inherit a host of challenges, mostly in the K-12 education policy arena.
Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says Duncan will likely sail through tomorrow's confirmation hearing. Hess's real concern is whether Duncan, as education secretary, will be able to usher in thoughtful and lasting education reforms. It's not clear whether he will recreate the same relationships in Washington that helped him overhaul Chicago schools, Hess says. As the chief of Chicago schools for seven years, Duncan enjoyed a reputation as a collaborative leader and was able to implement controversial reforms such as expanding charter schools and altering teacher salaries.
Margaret Spellings, the outgoing secretary of education, seems to thinks Duncan can be a transformative leader. In a letter to Duncan in the Washington Post today, she offers him some advice, urging him above all to capitalize on the overwhelming goodwill directed at Obama and his team and "treat education reform as a bipartisan issue. You have a tremendous number of friends and allies on both sides of the aisle willing to fight for reform—including me. Call on us," she says. Will he?