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Arne Duncan Out From Under Mayor Daley’s Thumb?

By Michele McNeil — December 16, 2008 2 min read
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My colleague, Catherine Gewertz, covers Chicago Public Schools as part of EdWeek’s urban beat, and has been talking to folks all day about Arne Duncan’s selection as President-elect Barack Obama’s secretary of education, and what it means for federal education policy. There’s a bigger EdWeek story that’s forthcoming. What follows is a sampling of reaction she’s hearing.

Michael Klonsky, a longtime Chicago activist and the director of the Small Schools Workshop, praised Mr. Duncan’s support of small schools in the city. But he also said he has been concerned that as part of the work of growing the small-school concept there, Mr. Duncan has helped fuel a trend toward using private companies to manage schools. He said he has also been troubled that Mr. Duncan and Mayor Richard M. Daley have eliminated local school councils at some schools, making it harder for parents and the public to influence and access the goings-on at their schools.

“I am hopeful that once he is out from under the thumb of Mayor Daley and the political machine here, and is working with Obama’s people, who I like and respect, Duncan can be liberated to do the things that I know are in his heart as a democratic educator,” said Klonsky, who has helped incubate small schools in Chicago and elsewhere. “He can be a great spokesman for urban public education, even more now on a national scene where he’s not chained to the ideology of the political machine here. I don’t think Arne is an ideologue. He’s a pragmatist at heart and a democrat.”

Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, said that Mr. Duncan’s temperament lends itself to his new position. But she also cautioned people to look at Chicago’s success from all angles. “So much of what is happening in Chicago is around test prep,” she said. “Every teacher in Chicago will say they feel their entire job is test prep. The reality has been that [school] closures have been chaotic and disruptive and have harmed children. And the replacement schools have really not proven themselves to be much different from the schools they replaced. We don’t think the result is worth the uproar.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union has released its statement: “Since becoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan has grown in his awareness of the problems facing America’s public education system, especially the conditions existing in large urban settings such as Chicago. With this background, he is well positioned to assume a national role in addressing the many issues that affect the day-to-day teaching of our nation’s school children.”

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