Barack Obama's choice for education secretary, Chicago school chief Arne (Ar-NEE) Duncan, is getting a warm welcome from most factions of the education community. He's been, in many ways, an unconventional leader willing to find creative solutions to some of public education's oldest dilemmas, including school attendance and dropout rates. The 44-year-old will have a lot on his plate, if confirmed, including what to do with President Bush's much maligned No Child Left Behind policy and how to make college more affordable. (See Obama's other Cabinet picks.)
Grew up in Hyde Park and went to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Duncan's mother ran a tutoring program and his father was a professor at the University of Chicago.
After graduating with a sociology degree from Harvard in 1987 where he was co-captain of the basketball team Duncan spent four years playing professional basketball in Australia. (He went Down Under after first trying out for the Boston Celtics.) While in Australia, Duncan also tutored underprivileged students. He was among the friends who played basketball with Obama on Election Day and has played pick-up games with Michael Jordan.
Married to wife Karen and has two children, Claire and Ryan.
After his stint as a pro athlete, Duncan returned to Chicago to help run, with his sister, the Ariel Education Initiative, a mentoring and tutoring program.
In 1998, Duncan was hired to run Chicago's magnet schools program. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley tapped Duncan to be schools chief in 2001, after first offering the job to someone else. Duncan was only 36 and had never before held a high-powered post and had never even had his own secretary, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago school system is the third-largest in the country.
While head of Chicago schools, Duncan did not shy away from controversy. His decision to close failing schools and use unconventional methods to increase academic performance has often been met with resistance from the community.
Duncan has been a strong advocate for charter schools, performance pay for teachers, sex segregated education, and funding increases for No Child Left Behind. He also supported a proposal for a high school catering to gay students, called Pride Campus.
In 2000, 76% of Chicago public school students showed up for class on the first day of the year. By 2003, the rate was 89%. Duncan has sent district representatives to students' homes to urge them to attend and offered tickets to sporting events to lure students to school. First-day attendance levels help determine year-long state funding levels.
To discourage students from quitting school, beginning in 2004, potential Chicago dropouts were required to sign a form acknowledging statements such as: "I will not be able to afford many things that I will see others acquiring," "I will be less likely to find good jobs that pay well, bad jobs that don't pay well, or maybe any jobs," and "I will be more likely to rely on the state welfare system for my livelihood."
After the federal government tried to yank No Child Left Behind funding in 2004 from a Chicago tutoring program, Duncan threatened to sue the U.S. Department of Education. The federal policy stated that under-performing districts, like Chicago, weren't eligible to use federal funds for tutoring programs. Duncan said the funding cut was "a slap in the face" to Chicago's neediest students. The DOE eventually relented and allowed the funding to be used as Duncan wanted.
In March 2008, Duncan decreed that although No Child Left Behind mandated students whose first language is not English take the same standardized tests as others, the scores for these bilingual students would not determine whether they would be allowed to move on to the next grade level. He justified his decision by saying that the federal rule would unfairly punish schools with bilingual students.
In September 2008, Duncan launched a program in 20 Chicago schools to pay students for good grades. Straight-A students could earn up to $4,000 per year through the program, funded by private donations. (Read more about Obama and education.)
"Arne has always seen education as a civil rights issue."
Phyllis Lockett, CEO of the Renaissance Schools Fund, a non-profit that works with Chicago schools, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 16, 2008
"He's sort of a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-down-to-work kind of individual...He brings a very down-to-Earth perspective."
Debra Strauss, president-elect of the Illinois PTA, Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2008
"He has this extraordinary ability to reach kids and their parents. People say he's like the Pied Piper because people just seem to follow him."
John Rogers, a longtime friend of Duncan's and funder of an inner-city mentoring program Duncan ran before going to work for the city, Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2001
"I'm furious, I'm outraged and I'm disgusted. If Arne Duncan cannot guarantee our protection, he should not have that job."
Marilyn Stewart, president of the Chicago teacher's union, after two laptops containing the names and social security numbers of 40,000 teachers were stolen from the district, Chicago Tribune, April 10, 2007
"I think all of our kids need the opportunity to learn and to grow 11 and 12 months out of the year."
on the virtues of summer school and the possibility of lengthening the academic school year, Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2001
"I've been fortunate to go to some of the top schools in America...but I can tell you, without a doubt, that some of the best lessons I've learned in life are from playing basketball on Chicago's inner-city playgrounds. There's nothing like it." on what the 6-foot-5-inch Duncan has learned playing basketball at venues all around his hometown, Chicago Tribune, July 11, 2001
"I think the current structure is morally bankrupt."
on the fact that tax-supported school funding varies depending on a community's wealth, Chicago Defender, March 23, 2004
"The majority of our students don't come from families with a lot of economic wealth. I'm always trying to level the playing field...This is the kind of incentive that middle-class families have had for decades."
on his decision to implement a program to pay students at 20 Chicago public schools for good grades, Chicago Tribune, Sept, 11. 2008
"I don't feel I can quite accept this award, not quite yet. I don't feel I have earned it."
choking back tears as he refused to accept the Abraham Lincoln Award from the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence in October. Duncan said he didn't deserve the award because rate of gun killings in Chicago public schools was then two per week, Chicago Sun Times, Oct. 8, 2008