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The Mechanics
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Education Thu Dec 18 2008

Duncan's Task in D.C.

Although our governors are making us the shame of the nation, much of the state is still feeling the afterglow of Obamamania. Slowly, we see our sons and daughter pack their bags and head out to D.C. to create change. The popular media have reported that Chicagoans are happy to see our citymen make the transition to the national spotlight.

Tuesday, Obama announced Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, to be his choice for Secretary of Education, to succeed Margaret Spellings. The popular media again report that we Chicagoans are all happy with the choice of Duncan, who they repeatedly mention as a "reformer."

Duncan comes from the camp of "reformers," a term widely used by the popular media to describe big-city superintendents who lead districts with vast disparities in educational opportunities using scarce resources. Duncan, Washington, D.C.'s Michelle Rhee, and New York City's Joel Klein share the belief that the underlying problem in education in the United States can be mainly pitted on "bad teachers." Solutions they propose: merit pay for teachers whose students make gains on standardized tests, giving parents the option to enroll their students in charter and specialized schools, and working around the much vilified policy of teacher tenure. These are all measures that keep budgets low but have unproven track records for success.

If these ideas sound familiar, one must not look further than the John McCain presidential campaign website. I've juxtaposed planks from his education platform, taken directly from his campaign website, with planks from Duncan's vision of the Chicago Public Schools.

McCain: "Encourage Alternative Certification Methods That Open The Door For Highly Motivated Teachers To Enter The Field."

Duncan: Strongly supports Teach for America and other Alternative Certification Programs.

McCain: "Provide Bonuses For Teachers Who Locate In Underperforming Schools And Demonstrate Strong Leadership As Measured By Student Improvement."

Duncan: Supports Merit Pay

McCain: "John McCain Believes We Must Empower School Principals With Greater Control Over Spending."

Duncan: "Principals are the CEOs of the buildings."

McCain: "John McCain Will Make Real The Promise Of NCLB By Giving Parents Greater Choice."

Duncan: Ushered in "Renaissance 2010," a program that allows students to apply to specialized public and charter schools.

McCain: John McCain Supports Expanding Virtual Learning By Reforming The "Enhancing Education Through Technology Program."

Duncan: Opened Chicago's virtual charter school.

I did not include that to be divisive along lines of partisanship, but to show that the dialogue itself frames the issue into a dichotomy of "reform vs. status quo" in a way that is disingenuous. Words like "choice" and "accountability" are used to sell a wholesale ideology of privatization, union busting, and teacher bashing. The "reform" label is being bought part-and-parcel by both sides of the aisle and skirts the real issue, which is education funding. If all schools were properly funded, and teachers were given the proper resources and ongoing professional development, snake-oil schemes would not be necessary.

Duncan, being someone who has seen firsthand how difficult it is to run a big-city district on scarce resources, should focus his efforts in Washington on equitable funding for all students.

The task of the new administration is to ensure that all schools, regardless of the income of the area surrounding them, are properly funded and allow all students access to a level playing field. Our leaders are to be held "accountable" to ensure this, or other "choices" will have to be made in who we elect.

 
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Ericka / December 18, 2008 4:53 PM

I was also surprised with the national media's portrayal of Duncan, since I had always seen him as somewhat controversial figure - definitely right-of-center in the Chicago public school context. It makes me wonder about all the glowing coverage of the cabinet picks I don't know as much about.

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