Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan Must Deal With Rhee, Union

Obama's education pick faces tough choices between unions and revolutionaries, Richard Whitmire writes.

Education secretary nominee Arne Duncan speaks as US president-elect Barack Obama listens during a press conference in Chicago.

Education secretary nominee Arne Duncan at a press conference in Chicago.

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With this week's appointment of Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as President-elect Obama's new education secretary, the education "reformers" are congratulating themselves. The tough guy who shut down failing schools in the Windy City and made the teachers reapply for jobs is just the secretary needed in Washington, they figure. Maybe.

Here's something you need to know about Duncan. Last summer, warring education camps squared off with opposing manifestos—school reformers who say vastly improved schools can rescue otherwise doomed poor kids versus social reformers who maintain that schools can't do it alone. Only one big city schools chief read over each manifesto and decided he could happily sign both: Arne Duncan.

Being an adroit straddler (along with being an Obama basketball buddy) may explain how Duncan got the education secretary nod over the other contenders. Duncan won the endorsement of the very liberal American Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten, and the very Republican current secretary of education, Margaret Spellings. Nice straddle, which is exactly what Obama appears to want from his education secretary.

The problem for the straddle strategy is there's a looming obstacle awaiting him in Washington, a very determined Washington schools chief who recently appeared on the cover of Time bearing a stern visage while gripping a large broom—ready to sweep reform into D.C. classrooms that for generations have proved resistant to reform. There's just no finessing Michelle Rhee, who at age 37 was handed the keys to the D.C. system with the full backing of the mayor. She has a delightful way of telling it like it is, mocking critics who complain that holding schools accountable for educating children strips creativity out of the classroom: "If the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job," she told Time. Rhee hails from what Weingarten disdainfully refers to as the "scorched earth" wing of the education reform movement.

Rhee wants to take school reform where no other school chief, including Duncan in Chicago, has dared go: sweeping incompetent teachers from their jobs. That's a confrontation with the teachers' unions that Duncan, who aspires to get along with everyone, would undoubtedly prefer to duck.

Wait, you're thinking. Duncan is secretary of education for the entire country. His department has nothing to do with the modest-sized D.C. school district. Ah, but that's not how it works here. White Houses and federal education departments have a tradition of meddling in D.C. schools, mostly to show off their pet reform theories. That's why D.C. has a federally funded voucher program and supports a huge charter school experiment.

No, Duncan can't duck this fight, where Rhee and the D.C. teachers union have wrestled to mutual headlocks over the issue of giving Clint Eastwood-esque power to Rhee to sort the good from the bad. Here's the offer she made to them, based on extra money promised by foundations: I'll give you unprecedented merit pay increases (teachers, who now average $65,000, could earn as much as $130,000) if you give up the tenure that guarantees lifetime job security).

The local union refused, giving everyone a unique insight into the value teachers place on tenure. In Duncan's home district of Chicago, as in other districts, school chiefs don't even bother to challenge the tenure provisions. That explains why nearly all Chicago teachers in that very troubled urban district get "superior" or "excellent" ratings, and even the handful who get "unsatisfactory" ratings don't get fired.

What Duncan and other school chiefs prefer to neglect, however, can't be sidestepped in Washington. While Rhee may ping in the lower registers of the emotional intelligence range (what was she thinking in agreeing to pose on a Time cover looking like the wicked witch of the East?), she's not an outlier. Rhee is the pointy tip of a revolution determined to take on what Duncan and other school chiefs ignore: basic teacher competency. For decades, too many teachers have arisen from the hindquarter of the SAT scale. In college, they were steered into flaccid undergraduate programs befitting their campus "cash cow" status (would-be teachers pay the same tuition as, say, physics students, but they don't need expensive labs). Once on the job, their promotions are based on often-pointless graduate degrees. This is the one education reform rock that's never truly been turned over.