Arne Duncan, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for U.S. secretary of education, joined the woman he’ll be replacing, Margaret Spellings, at an event this afternoon hosted by the Education Equality Project, an organization headed by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton that calls for a “no excuses” approach to education redesign.
“I’m thrilled to be passing the baton at the U.S. Department of Education to my good friend and fellow reformer, Arne Duncan,” Spellings told the crowd gathered at the District of Columbia’s Cardozo High School. “President-elect Obama made a very courageous choice in choosing this man.”
“I’ve learned so much from Secretary Spellings,” Duncan said. There are schools across the nation that are doing an exemplary job of raising student achievement, he said. “Our challenge is to take those pockets of excellence and make that the norm, rather than the exception.”
The gathering, a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, framed education overhaul as a civil rights issue. It was a Who’s Who of big-city mayors, urban superintendents, civil rights leaders, and even some big-name Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s opponent in the November election. McCain has supported Klein and Sharpton’s effort. (You can read more about the role that the Education Equality Project played in the presidential campaign here.)
McCain got a rousing reception from the mostly African-American crowd, many of whom were wearing Obama buttons and T-shirts. They rushed forward to take his picture when he came on stage.
“Friends, this issue must unite us,” McCain said. “This issue is the uniting factor that should drive us in the twenty-first century and in the next four years. We must join together.”
Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., a Democrat, challenged his party to stand up to “special interests” that he said have halted progress in closing the achievement gap.
“I’m in the mood for a movement in America. I feel it spreading from coast to coast, from north to south, from people who say ‘no excuses,’ ” he said. “As a Democrat, we have not always been right on education. As a Democrat, there are forces in our party that sometimes pull us the wrong way on education. ... I am no longer concerned with right and left. I just want to go forward.”
The crowd heard from more than a dozen prominent speakers, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who headed ED in ‘08, an effort to raise the profile of education during the 2008 campaign; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. councilman and a founder of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action group; Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia; Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento; and philanthropist Eli Broad, whose foundation gives a coveted award for urban school districts (and is underwriting an Education Week series pegged to the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk).
One of the final speakers was Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the D.C. schools, who has clashed with some parents and teachers in implementing an ambitious plan to overhaul the chronically troubled system.
“A lot of people have said that we are trying to move too fast,” Rhee said. “It is not possible to move fast enough.”
But when she told the crowd that “a lot of people benefit from the fact that we are dysfunctional” as a school district—an apparent reference to the local teachers’ union—one woman in the back of auditorium shouted, “That’s not true!”
Tiko L. Jackson, a Washington resident whose son goes to Cardozo High, said the speakers were “right on point,” particularly in calling for parents to get more involved in their children’s education.
So far, she’s been happy with Rhee, Jackson said, and is glad that the chancellor is committed to removing ineffective teachers from the system.
“We’re starting to see some real change,” she said.