Who will school Arne Duncan?

February 23, 2009

The new education secretary has attacked public education in the name of reform and presided over a school system in Chicago that his own alma mater described as almost total apartheid.

"I THINK we are putting together the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history." So said Barack Obama upon naming Arne Duncan his nominee for Secretary of Education.

There is no doubt that when it comes to hoops, Duncan has game. The man stands six feet, five inches. He was an Academic All-American baller at Harvard University and played professionally in Australia for four years. Long before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, Duncan put in time in the minor league hoops circuit with teams like the Rhode Island Gulls and New Jersey Jammers.

No question, if I was on the court choosing teams, I'd pick Duncan in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, we aren't selecting a pick-up squad. What is at stake is the future of public education. And when it comes to our schools Duncan's record brands him as a scrub.

Take this critique as something from someone who taught in D.C. public schools for four years and whose wife still slogs through the crumbling infrastructure of the system. If you believe that "we can't just throw money" at schools, that unions are a block to reform, that the military should have open access to our kids, and that charter schools are the greatest thing to happen to education since corporal punishment, then you will probably disagree with what will follow, and Arne Duncan should warm the cockles of your heart.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

Duncan might not have fulfilled his dreams of scoring 20 a game, but he has converted roughly 20 Chicago public schools a year over to private operations. He has rejected many of Chicago's "Local School Councils," loves the stultifying test-taking used to judge national standards, and stands firmly with the notion that teachers at poor-testing schools should be canned. Duncan has also turned a blind eye to addressing a study from his alma mater, Harvard University, that Chicago's public schools are "only a few percentage points from an experience of total apartheid for Black students."

But the experience of Chicago teacher Jesse Sharkey is more damning tham anything I could write. Sharkey teaches at Senn High School, where students, parents and teachers organized together in a high-profile campaign to keep the city from installing a Naval academy inside the school. As Sharkey wrote:

We asked Duncan to postpone the decision to put the military school at Senn. Duncan's answer was a classic. He said: "I come from a Quaker family, and I've always been against war. But I'm going to put the Naval academy in there, because it will give people in the community more choices."...He's just the kind of person who will look at you with a straight face and tell you that, as a person with a pacifist background, he supports a military school.

Well, at least we know Duncan will fit in well in Washington, where personal conviction means little when up against political objectives. (See Warren, Rick.)

Make no mistake about it: I like the fact that hoops will be part of the culture of the new White House. Duncan, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Advisor General James Jones and Ambassador to the UN nominee Susan Rice all have a serious basketball pedigree.

And as someone who grew up in New York City playing hoops only slightly less than I breathed, I strongly relate to the passage in Obama's 1995 book Dreams From My Father, where he wrote, "I could play basketball, with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited ability...On the basketball court, I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn't be a disadvantage."

For me, as well, in a divided New York City, the basketball court was where walls felt like they could come down. But I have far more faith in the sacred power of hoops than I do in an education secretary who presides over an apartheid system and attacks teachers and public education in the name of reform.

If Duncan tries to bring that into my lane, I won't be the only person ready to smack that junk back into the third row.

First published in the Progressive.

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