WASHINGTON — A potential education secretary, Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, visited the Education Department Thursday morning on what he said was a purely social call.
Duncan chatted over coffee with outgoing Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. He said the visit had nothing to do with the possibility of being chosen to serve in President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet. Duncan is among a handful of names mentioned as likely candidates for the education post.
"I was just meeting with Secretary Spellings; we're hoping she comes to Chicago next week to talk about some of the work that she supports in Chicago," Duncan said in a brief interview with The Associated Press.
Duncan is friendly with the president-elect, playing pickup basketball as well as touring schools with Obama. He said he has informally advised Obama but doesn't know when the education job will be announced.
"I have no idea," he said, chuckling. "I try to help a little bit from the outside, but I have to focus on my job in Chicago."
He acknowledged the tough economic times facing education but said there is reason to be optimistic.
"Oh, there are lots of challenges and, obviously, huge opportunities," Duncan said. "I think there's a huge amount of work that has to go on on the early childhood side. There's a huge amount you've got to do in the K to 12 sector. And higher ed, particularly the student loans, presents some huge, huge challenges."
But he said Obama's education plan will address all those issues.
"He has an unbelievably thoughtful, comprehensive plan, and there's a real opportunity to do something special going forward," Duncan said.
The Chicago schools chief has spent seven years running the country's third-biggest school district. He's focused on improving struggling schools, closing those that fail, and getting better teachers.
Other names being floated for education secretary include governors Tim Kaine of Virginia and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and Obama adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor. And former Secretary of State Colin Powell has also been in the mix.