What the Duncan Appointment Suggests About Obama.

Tom Maguire has a great roundup of reactions to the Arne Duncan appointment. Included are these:

This pick wins raves from the Freakonomist:

Freakonomics readers will remember Arne as the hero of our chapter on teacher cheating. He was head of the Chicago Public Schools when Brian Jacob and I were investigating how teachers and administrators were doctoring standardized test sheets.

With seemingly nothing to gain and much to lose, Arne embraced our results, even allowing us to do audit testing to confirm our hypotheses. Eventually, a handful of teachers were fired.

Since then, I've interacted with Arne a few times, and in a variety of settings. I always walk away dazzled. He is smart as hell and his commitment to the kids is remarkable. If you wanted to start from scratch and build a public servant, Arne would be the end product.

Steve Diamond calls this a defeat for the Bill Ayers faction:

Bill Ayers and co. lost a big battle today with the announcement that Arne Duncan will be Obama's Education Secretary. Duncan is one of the "Big 4," as Ayers calls the four reform oriented school superintendents Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and Paul Vallas. And Ayers has been part of a nationwide effort among certain self-styled "progressive" and "social justice" oriented education activists and educators to lobby against the Big 4. Ayers was, of course, plugging for race theorist, anti-union small schools advocate and education school figure Linda Darling-Hammond.

Excellent - if Bill Ayers is frowning I am smiling, since my worst fears are not being realized.

. . . From the left, if Mike Klonsky is sad, can't righties smile a bit?

Maguire points out that Vallas and Duncan were on one side of the education wars and Obama and Ayers were on the other (along with, I would add, the three foundations on which Obama and Ayers were working together).

Obama's opposing Vallas in the Chicago education wars in the 1990s may be one reason why Obama lent his support (and regular advice) to Blagojevich in 2002 when Blagojevich defeated Paul Vallas, the architect of the Chicago school turnaround, in the primaries that year.

I remember that 2002 Democratic primary as perhaps my saddest. Not only did an honest and staggering talented reformer (Vallas) get beaten by a political hack on the make (Blagojevich), but John Schmidt, a truly brilliant former Associate Attorney General from the Clinton Justice Department, lost in the primaries to the relatively lightweight Lisa Madigan, who became the Illinois Attorney General. (Schmidt was the only candidate to which my wife and I have ever donated more than a trivial amount on money.)

By appointing Duncan, Obama has now switched sides and backed what works, rather than what he was pushing in the 1990s.

Obama's ability to learn from his mistakes is one of his best qualities, one I discussed at some length last summer. I started by pointing out that Obama had not swallowed Alinsky-style organizing whole, but rather had reversed, rejected, or reworked many of Alinsky's central tenets.

I then turned to education reforms:

Left to his own devices, Barack Obama is an extremely thoughtful guy, who often reworks and synthesizes the influences he absorbs. If one looks at Obama's current education proposals, he has jettisoned most of the left-wing Bill Ayers-style ideas that the Annenberg Challenge pushed in the mid-1990s when Obama was its chair — probably because they didn't work.

i argued that the major exception to this pattern of learning from experience is Obama's continued support for public-private partnerships in housing:

One area where Obama has had lots of experience but where his trademark thoughtfulness has failed him is private-public housing projects. His best friends and supporters built and managed public-private projects that failed miserably.

I concluded:

Yet Obama's support for public-private housing projects is an exception. Usually, Obama learns from the failures of his reform proposals. Generally, he is a pragmatic idealist.

People should not confuse Obama's personality with his political orientation: by personality, Obama is the most reasonable, thoughtful, moderate person on either national ticket. He is definitely NOT an ideologue.

(I went on to say that by political orientation, Obama is extremely liberal or progressive for a mainstream politician, but that aspect of him is not reflected in the choice of Duncan.)

Not only is Arne Duncan a great choice for Secretary of Education, but it reflects that Obama possesses a quality that his predecessor has too little of: Obama's genuine thoughtfulness and willingness to rethink his views.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. What the Duncan Appointment Suggests About Obama.
  2. Obama Makes a Great Choice for Secretary of Education.