Huffpost Politics

Obama Education Pick Sparks Conflict

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WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama has not signaled what he will do to fix the country's failing schools, but his choice of education secretary will say a lot about the policies he may pursue.

Debate is simmering among Democrats over whom Obama should name.

Teachers' unions, an influential segment of the party base, want an advocate for their members, someone like Obama adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor, or Inez Tenenbaum, the former state schools chief in South Carolina.

Reform advocates want someone like New York schools chancellor Joel Klein, who wants teachers and schools held accountable for the performance of students.

Thus far Obama has avoided taking sides, saying things that reassure the competing factions. Obama has said, for instance, that teacher pay should be tied to student achievement, which reformers like, but not solely based on test scores, which teachers like.

Unions, by the way, dislike the "reformer" label, pointing out they want reform, too. And the reform group says it cares about good teachers; it just wants bad ones out of the classroom.

"He's a wise man," said Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, chuckling. "He left himself some room to maneuver."

Bayh, a Democratic centrist who backed the No Child Left Behind law, thinks Obama will find a way to straddle the competing factions. "My strong impression of the president-elect is he is pragmatic. He won't pick an ideologue. He won't pick a side in this fight."

Even so, Bayh expects Obama to choose someone the unions can live with to carry out his education goals.

"You probably don't get there by having an overt, in-your-face fight with classroom teachers," Bayh said. "That's going to take a lot of political capital and divert energy from other things."

Can Obama make both sides happy? Not likely, said Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.

"I think it's almost an impossible pick to make and somebody not be upset," Burr said. "I'm not sure there's a candidate that bridges both divides."

One candidate might fit the bill _ Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, who has spent seven years running the country's third-largest school district.

Duncan is friendly with the president-elect, playing pickup basketball as well as touring schools with the former Illinois senator and fellow Harvard alumnus. Duncan visited Washington last week, stopping for coffee with outgoing Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, but he said the visit was purely social and had nothing to do with the Obama transition.

Like Obama, Duncan has straddled both education factions, signing manifestos from each side earlier this year.

The reform group likes Duncan's work in Chicago, where he has focused on improving struggling schools, closing those that fail and getting better teachers.

And unlike Klein or Washington schools chief Michelle Rhee, Duncan has managed to avoid alienating the teachers' unions.

"Arne Duncan actually reaches out and tries to do things in a collaborative way," said Randi Weingarten, head of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten also heads the New York teachers union, whose members felt demonized in their contract battles with Klein. The 3.2 million-member National Education Association shares their view.

"Joel Klein is not someone we would be happy with as secretary of education," NEA lobbyist Joel Packer said. "I don't think Obama is going to pick someone who's going to be really divisive."

Darling-Hammond, the Obama adviser who is heading his education transition team, is equally controversial. The reform group doesn't like her because of her criticism of No Child Left Behind and her early critique of Teach for America, which pairs college graduates with a school-in-need for two years, although she has since given the program credit for attracting talented teachers.

Both unions have said they like the idea of Obama choosing a governor or former governor. There are many to choose from, including former Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia. Kansas' Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, whose name had been floated for several Cabinet posts, announced over the weekend that she had removed herself from consideration from a Cabinet job in the Obama administration, citing Kansas' budget problems that need her attention.

The names of former Mississippi Govs. Ray Mabus and Ronnie Musgrove have also surfaced; several people said Musgrove has talked to Democratic senators about the job, but he did not return a call from The Associated Press.

AFT backed Obama's rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the primary, and NEA held off on an endorsement, but in the general election both endorsed Obama and spent millions of dollars supporting him.

In the education debate, the competing sides break down over the degree to which teachers and schools should be held accountable for how kids are learning, and the role test scores should play in making that determination.

At the heart of the dispute: No Child Left Behind, the law that has grown as unpopular as George W. Bush, the lame-duck president who championed it.

The reform group agrees with the law's general principle of penalties for schools if test scores fail to improve. Although nearly everyone agrees the law has problems that need fixing.

The union coalition says test scores aren't the only measure, and that factors far beyond the classroom affect how well kids learn.

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