Obama names basketball buddy and fellow Harvard alum as Education Secretary

Jake Turcotte

Barack Obama named his longtime basketball buddy and fellow Harvard alum Arne Duncan to be Education Secretary, a position of considerable importance in an administration loaded with Ivy League grads who value intellectual achievement.

Duncan has headed the Chicago public school system, the nation’s third largest, since 2001.  He has a reputation as an educational reformer, and test scores rose during his tenure.  “When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners,” Obama said at a Tuesday morning press conference.

The announcement of Duncan’s nomination was made at Dodge Renaissance Academy on Chicago’s West Side, a site cloaked in symbolism.  Duncan closed the once failing school and later reopened it as both a school and teacher training facility.  The result, according to the Dodge web site," in math, 79.4% of our students meet or exceed state goals; in reading, 69.7% of our students meet or exceed the goals.”

My friend, Arne

Obama referred Duncan as “my friend, Arne Duncan.”  The nominee’s closeness to the president-elect also can be seen in the fact that he was among those who played basketball with Obama on Election Day. He has played pick-up ball with Obama since the 1990’s.

At the press conference, the president-elect quipped that, "I did not select Arne because he is one of the best basketball players I know.”

The Education Secretary-designate shares the president-elect’s view that the No Child Left Behind school accountability law, passed with bi-partisan support during the Bush administration, needs to be redrawn with greater flexibility.  Obama has said he supports accountability provisions in the law that mandate improvement.

Loaded with Ivy Leaguers

Duncan is the latest addition to a Cabinet roster heavily loaded with graduates of Ivy League institutions as well as Stanford and MIT, who value the transforming power of a first-rate education.  UN Ambassador-designate Susan Rice was a Rhodes Scholar; economic advisor Larry Summers was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard history and later president of the university;  Greg Craig, named to be White House Counsel, attended Exeter, Harvard, Cambridge, and YaleSteven Chu, named Monday to be Energy Secretary, did not attend an Ivy League School, earning his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley.  Of course, he did win the Nobel Prize in physics.

“If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, we will have to out-educate them today,” Obama said at Tuesday’s presser.

Mr. Obama’s nominee for Education Secretary grew up in the Hyde Park section of Chicago where Obama now lives and attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools where the Obamas’ daughters are students.  At Harvard, Duncan was co-captain of the basketball team and an All-American.   After an unsuccessful tryout with the Boston Celtics, Duncan moved to Australia and played pro basketball while also tutoring students.

Basketball gives way to education

Basketball gave way to education in 1992 when Duncan return to Chicago to work at the Ariel Education Initiative, an effort to help under-privileged children funded by the investment firm owned by major Obama supporter John Rogers Jr.  Duncan met Obama through the president-elect’s brother-in-law and fellow basketball aficionado, Craig Robinson.

At the press conference, Duncan said, “no issue is more pressing than education.”  He added,"It is the civil rights issue of our generation.”

A consensus candidate

Senate confirmation for Duncan does not appear to be a problem.  In a written statement, Sen. Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which must confirm the education nominee, called Duncan a consensus candidate.

"Arne has been a pragmatic and effective leader of Chicago's schools," Kennedy said.   "He's brought people together to address difficult challenges and expand opportunities so that every child can succeed."

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