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Education Reporter

Obama's Inauguration Will Usher In Push for Universal Preschool
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President-elect Barack Obama named Chicago's Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education. Duncan has served as chief executive of the Chicago public school system since 2001. He majored in sociology at Harvard University, played professional basketball in Australia for four years, and has worked in education in Chicago since 1991.

Outgoing Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings called Duncan a "kindred spirit," saying he is a "reform-oriented school leader who has been a supporter of No Child Left Behind and accountability concepts and teacher quality."

Arne Duncan recently made news by recommending the creation of the Chicago Social Justice High School-Pride Campus, where half the students would be homosexual and the other half straight. Somehow that plan was deferred a year just about the time that Obama announced Duncan's appointment.

Democrats for Education Reform, a group that is challenging the Democratic Party to rethink key reforms such as merit pay and charter schools, viewed Obama's choice of Duncan as a savvy political move. In a recent policy paper, representatives of that group wrote that Duncan "has credibility with various factions in the education policy debate and would allow President Obama to avoid publicly choosing sides in that debate."

Three different programs have carried forward Duncan's ideas in the 400,000-student urban school district. The Renaissance 2010 program closes low-performing schools and replaces them with smaller, charter-type schools. So far, 75 new schools have opened, many of them free from union contracts or from certain state regulations.

A second strategy, known as "turnaround," leaves students where they are, but fires most of the school's staff and reopens the school under new management. Duncan has used this strategy at eight schools. Not surprisingly, teachers unions dislike the turnaround strategy.

High School Transformation, a third Duncan program, has enrolled 50 schools. The program targets students from low-income backgrounds, and attempts to improve school performance with an influx of new resources, better curricula, and teacher training. The district has spent $80 million on High School Transformation, with seemingly positive results.

Although Duncan has pushed performance-based pay and the creation of more charter schools, he is still fairly popular with teachers unions. The unions appreciate Duncan's repeated calls for increased funding for schools; for example, in 2006 he called on Congress to double funding for No Child Left Behind. Duncan also says he wants teachers to have more flexibility in meeting federal mandates, though skeptics wonder what he means by this.

Duncan put into place a somewhat controversial program awarding cash to students who make As, Bs, and even Cs. The program rewards 5,000 students at 20 schools with $50 for every A, $35 for every B, and $20 for every C. Students receive half the money right away, and the other half when they graduate. Duncan defended the program by saying that middle-class kids already receive such cash incentives for good grades.

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