Obama's Lesson Planner

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Cabinet star Arne Duncan's mission to fix America's schools has a shot at success.

When President Obama plays his celebrated basketball games at the White House or Camp David, he always wants one cabinet member on his team: Education Secretary Arne Duncan. That's partly because Duncan is tall (6 foot 5), a former pro player in Australia, and such a good passer that Michael Jordan asked Duncan to help him train for his legendary comeback in 1995. But the biggest reason is that Duncan is one of those players who always seem to figure out how to win.

With the budget and Libya both bloody messes, Obama needs a bipartisan victory on the most significant domestic issue on his watch: education. We're about to learn if the finesse Duncan developed as the only white kid on ghetto playground courts on Chicago's South Side will let him navigate the Washington knife fights to come. The tussle is over what happens to George W. Bush's despised No Child Left Behind program, which is up for renewal this year. Duncan's game plan is clear enough to diagram on a whiteboard: to make ed policy more "fair, flexible, and focused."

Fairness means reforming an NCLB system that treats even decent schools like failures. There's bipartisan support for what Duncan calls "a more nuanced accountability system." That requires flexibility. Duncan hopes that by moving away from rigid top-down solutions he can enlist more Republican support. Where the GOP more often balks is on the third F: focus. Duncan wants to concentrate federal attention on the 5,000 worst schools--the "dropout factories."

On his right, the new GOP chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. John Kline, says he wants to slash spending on education and break up the education bill into bite-size pieces, both of which would stall reform. Like Kline, Sen. Lamar Alexander, the key Republican in the upper chamber, emphasizes the philosophical differences: "Most Republicans would support Race to the Top [Duncan's signature accountability program] if proposed by a governor, but it's too much federal action."

On Duncan's left, teachers' unions (especially the National Education Association) try to impede common-sense reform ideas like tenure reform and merit pay. …