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Published: Wednesday, 12/24/2008

Reformer for education

PRESIDENT-elect Barack Obama's nomination of Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan as secretary of education could be an important step in attacking the problems of American schools in the new administration.

As a fellow Chicagoan, Mr. Obama is aware of Mr. Duncan's performance as head of that city's public school system, the third largest in the nation, for the past seven years.

Chicago's schools were once among America's most troubled, but under Mr. Duncan student achievement has been raised, ineffective teachers have been replaced, and failed schools have been closed.

In the past, the nation sometimes suffered when presidents brought people from their home states to Washington. Examples include some of Warren Harding's Ohioans and Jimmy Carter's Georgians. But Mr. Duncan is clearly qualified.

Much discussion within the education establishment preceded Mr. Obama's choice. Various groups were pushing their favored candidates for the job based, in part, on pet issues.

One of Mr. Obama's points of emphasis will be early childhood education, where he believes greater investment, perhaps $10 billion, would reduce the need for remedial programs later. Mr. Duncan is no stranger to the idea, having expanded enrollments in early childhood programs in Chicago for 3 and 4-year-olds by about 1,000 slots per year.

He has managed to introduce tough, sensible changes in the Chicago school system without finding himself at war with the teachers and the school board, unlike superintendents in other cities. His inspired selection by Mr. Obama has split the difference between the reformers and the establishment.

Since the president-elect wants to recruit many more teachers, encourage districts to adopt performance-based pay (which is controversial among teachers unions), and see a thorough rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, his new secretary will have no shortage of work.

Arne Duncan appears poised to tackle the problems of public education at all levels.

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