Yes We Can: Arne Duncan Nominated as Education Secretary

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On December 16, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama nominated Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be Secretary of Education. As Education Secretary, Mr. Duncan would preside over the 4,200 employee, $68.6 billion US Department of Education. Among his many responsibilities would be the reauthorization of the nation’s seminal K-12 education law: No Child Left Behind.

The nomination represents an important statement about the direction that the Obama Administration thinks that public education needs to travel in order to ensure that America’s children have every opportunity to become healthy, happy and successful adults.

Mr. Duncan believes that schools should be the heart and center of communities. At a November Symposium hosted by the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College on Comprehensive Educational Equity, Mr. Duncan underlined this point. The 600 schools in Chicago “don’t belong to me,” he said. “They don’t belong to the engineers union. They don’t belong to the Mayor. They belong to the community.”

Calling the debate between school improvement efforts or student support services a false dichotomy, Mr. Duncan explained how desperately we need to improve what is happening during the school day. However, he said, “even if we’re doing that perfectly, even if we have great, great schools that are open six hours a day, that is not enough. It is insufficient.” He advocated for layering services and opportunities such as high quality after-school and early childhood programs, classes for parents and health services with great teaching and high expectations. If we don’t, he warned, it does children a huge disservice. That is why Chicago has 150 community schools.

Community schools, inherently, reflect many aspects of President-elect Obama’s philosophy and agenda. By harnessing the resources of the community to support children and their families, community schools represent the very ideals that the President-elect espouses: civic engagement, shared responsibility and holistic, strategic responses to complex challenges.

The community schools strategy is particularly salient as the country faces tremendous financial hardships. The strategy not only works – children fare better in community schools – but community schools also are examples of using existing and new dollars efficiently.

“The money that we put into our community schools,” Duncan said at the Equity Symposium, “is by far the most leveraged money that I spend.” Of the $20 million being spent on the Chicago Community Schools Initiative, Duncan noted that over half comes from outside the school system, including the state, the federal government and the philanthropic community. “In every single one of our community schools, we won’t operate it as a Chicago Public School by ourselves – and I don’t think we should. In every single one we have a community partner that has come in.”

Community school initiatives around the country have demonstrated a host of positive results. As we look for systemic strategies that seek to address the myriad factors that affect children’s success in school, community schools consistently rises to the top as an important model to consider.

“Every single year (since 2001),” said Duncan, “our community schools have improved at a faster rate than the rest of the district.” Duncan cited fewer discipline problems, improved attendance and decreased truancy, a decrease in student mobility and an increase in civic participation and community investment in schools as just some of the benefits of community schools.

So, while the country faces many real and complex challenges, the future for America’s children is looking brighter with the nomination of Mr. Duncan as Education Secretary.