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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That revolution is partly fueled by Teach for America, the inspired program that recruits students from elite college campuses and trains them to teach in the nation's toughest schools. Rhee is a product of that system, having taught in a Baltimore elementary school for two years as a TFAer. Today, TFA alums—14,400 from the last 18 years—are scattered around the country, many holding high-powered jobs (8 percent of Princeton seniors recently applied to join). Two thirds of those alums either work or study in the education field, almost half as classroom teachers. Even alums who left education for good after their two-year teaching commitment and now work as lawyers and investment bankers look upon those two years as their formidable domestic Peace Corps experience—93 percent say they contribute to the TFA "mission" in some way. These folks, who are not beholden to the system, are hungry for reform.

This is not a group to be messed with, so it should come as no surprise that when Obama appointed Stanford education professor and TFA critic Linda Darling-Hammond as his transition education chief, TFA alums (the organization itself stayed neutral) rallied the troops to block her appointment as secretary. It was a messy, one-sided battle. In fact, it got so bloody that Darling-Hammond's allies finally had to rally to her defense with op-eds and letters to the editor, correctly pointing out that her distinguished education career amounted to more than being a union toady. I can't name a single other Obama transition chief who endured that kind of hazing.

Two lessons for Duncan in his new job: Don't mess with TFA, and don't even try to ignore the Michelle Rhee confrontation over teacher competence. At 6-foot, 5-inches tall, you can dunk once on the diminutive Rhee. But don't try it a second time.

Richard Whitmire, a veteran education reporter, is president of the National Education Writers Association.

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