Arne Duncan always seemed like the obvious choice for Secretary of Education to me. He works in Chicago, just like Obama. Obama knows him personally. He went to Harvard and he plays basketball. On top of that, he’s had a good record in Chicago. And compared to other reform-oriented big city superintendents he has a much better relationship with teacher’s unions.
Under the circumstances, it seems to me that there was an enormous tactical cleverness in the way Obama let this thing play out with increasing levels of hysteria from unions and reformers about potential choices. If Obama had done the obvious thing early, it’s possible that both sides would have come away disappointed. But by getting everyone afraid of the specter of Joel Klein or Linda Darling-Hammond, he wound up making a pick who makes everyone happy. And, honestly, everyone should be happy! Of course this means conflicts will now be deferred onto subcabinet choices and so forth. But I would say that with NCLB architects George Miller and Ted Kennedy still running the relevant committees in congress and a reformist in the White House, the basic principles of testing and accountability look set to remain in place.
Meanwhile, the team of ballers has just added its most accomplished player. Duncan was co-captain of the Harvard basketball team and after graduation he played professionally in Australia for several years. That puts him a cut above the pick-up crew that you’ll see in the rest of the administration.