NAICU Washington Update

Secretary of Education-designate Arne Duncan - Through a Higher-education Lens

January 16, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama has named Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, to be the next Secretary of Education. He comes to Washington with a strong background in public elementary and secondary education, but very little professional experience in higher education.

Duncan has been the Chicago Public Schools CEO for the last seven years, where he has earned a solid reputation for confronting pressing issues in public K-12 education, such as raising teacher quality; transforming underperforming schools into strong schools; and closing failing schools when necessary. From 1998 to 2001, Duncan was director of magnet schools and deputy chief of staff to the Chicago schools chief, Paul G. Vallas; from 1991 to 1998 he directed the Ariel Education Initiative, a philanthropic effort with a small staff that seeks to create better schooling opportunities for poor children on the South Side of Chicago; and from 1987 to 1991 he played professional basketball in Australia.

Duncan comes from a family of educators - his mother founded and has run a highly regarded Chicago tutoring program for 48 years, and his late father was a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. Duncan graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and sits on the Harvard Board of Overseers.

During his confirmation hearing with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on January 13, he opened his comments by saying that education is going to be a popular issue because "the Obamas are living symbols of the importance of education," and that because of them, kids think "it's cool to be smart!" He stated that he and Obama believe that "education is the civil rights issue of our generation - the only sure path out of poverty and the only way to achieve a more equal and just society."

To achieve that goal, Duncan talked about the Obama administration looking at reform at every level - early childhood, raising K-12 standards, improving teacher quality, providing greater access to college, and supporting community colleges. He said the two big themes in their approach will be to stop doing what doesn't work and innovate, and to recognize and reward excellence.

During the hearing he didn't get into specifics about proposals - especially in higher education - but he mentioned the complexity of the FAFSA being a barrier to college that the new administration would like to address, the need for Pell Grant increases, and student loan forgiveness as a way of nurturing a mutual responsibility for paying for college.

In his written testimony Duncan acknowledges that much of the legislative work on higher education issues has just been completed, and now the regulatory process will begin. He said, "I applaud the [HELP] committee's efforts to boost college enrollment for students with disabilities, curb tuition hikes, and help more students to complete college . . . improving oversight for the accreditation process, insisting on more data about student success, and shining a light on the issue of college costs. If confirmed, I am ready to implement this legislation. Indeed, the timing of the regulatory process means that I will be working on these issues from day one."

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