All Things Considered, February 4, 2009 · As news broke Tuesday that Tom Daschle was withdrawing his bid to become secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, another one of President Obama's Cabinet picks was quietly at work.
The new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, was visiting a charter school in Washington, D.C., with the president and first lady. More school visits are in Duncan's future, but his focus now is on the economic stimulus package — and the $140 billion currently slated for schools.
Duncan knows that some of that money could be whittled back, so he's trying to get the message out that Americans must "educate our way to a better economy."
"Long-term, the best way we bring ourselves back to economic health and really strengthen the economy is to have an educated work force," he tells Melissa Block. "So these investments are tremendously important, and we have to continue to push very, very hard to make sure that happens."
But across the country, educators have expressed concern that this isn't a long-term fix. Even if the money is approved now, they're worried about what will happen when it runs out.
That's no reason to not do anything now, says Duncan, who most recently was the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools system.
"We need to invest, and we want to hold ourselves accountable to invest impeccably well," and the Obama administration's economic stimulus package presents an unprecedented opportunity to invest in what works, he says.
'The Civil Rights Issue Of Our Generation'
"At every level, there's a very significant reform agenda," Duncan says. Obama's plans call for expanding early childhood education; improving the quality of kindergarten-to-12th grade education; investing in teachers; ensuring that all students graduate from high school with college-ready, career-ready standards; and breaking down barriers to higher education, Duncan says.
"I really think this is the civil rights issue of our generation," he says. "And as a country I think we've lost our way. We've sort of stagnated where other countries internationally have really passed us. And so I think we have to do dramatically better, and I'm going to push very, very hard to do that at every level."
Obama's administration has a chance — and an economic and moral imperative, Duncan says — to improve on the education policies shaped under President Bush.
Though Bush was called the education president, his No Child Left Behind legislation has been maligned — for too much emphasis on testing, for example. The principles behind No Child Left Behind made a lot of sense, Duncan says, but there were implementation challenges in certain areas.
Duncan says he is going to analyze what worked, and "where things don't make sense. We're going to be pragmatic, and we're going to fix those." He says the administration may even have to repackage and rename the program going forward.
'The Highest Of Expectations'
Duncan brings with him to the education department lessons from his childhood on Chicago's South Side, where his mother has run an inner-city tutoring program since 1961.
He says he saw people every day who, though they were very poor and may not have had the best family life, went on to do extraordinary things. One became a Hollywood movie star; one became a brain surgeon; one is one of IBM's leaders internationally; one was part of Duncan's senior management team in the Chicago school system.
"And they did that all from this one little corner of 46th and Greenwood because of my mother and other people in their lives who had the highest of expecations — who stayed with them day after day and helped them through the good times and bad. What I saw was the unbelievable untapped potential all of our kids have if we as adults really believe in them, invest in them, have the highest of expectations and stay with them for the long haul," he says.
As for Duncan's two young children, he says, they'll attend Washington, D.C., public schools.