Recently, Barack Obama performed yet another political miracle, to the amazement and delight of the entire nation. In case anyone missed the sheer genius of his performance, the news page of the New York Times fell all over itself to make sure its readers realized just what a mastermind Obama was to pull off this latest feat.
What did he do that was so amazing in the eyes of the Times? He nominated the most boring education secretary he could possibly have chosen.
Praise for Obama’s ingenious choice, and for Obama’s brilliance generally, was lavishly quoted in the Times story. “Obama found the sweet spot,” raved one supporter quoted by the Times. “Both camps will be O.K. with the pick!”
And indeed, it is true that Arne Duncan, the superintendent of Chicago schools, is praised by education reformers and teacher union monopolists alike. Reformers like Duncan because he’s better than the union shills they’re accustomed to dealing with during Democratic administrations; in Chicago, Duncan successfully pushed to close underperforming schools, sometimes even reopening the same schools under new leadership. And the unions like Duncan because although he’s not one of theirs, he’s tame — you’ll never hear him push for anything that would seriously liberate schools from union control.
In other words, as Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution told a less credulous Wall Street Journal, Duncan is a “safe choice.” If Duncan is acceptable to everybody, that’s another way of saying he’s the lowest common denominator. And as a great education reformer once said: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.”
But you know, I think the Times may be on to something here in spite of itself. It really is amazing how totally uninteresting — how completely devoid of any possible justification for paying attention to it — the choice of Duncan for education secretary is. In fact, the selection has succeeded in fascinating me by achieving such an unprecedented level of anti-fascinatingness. It repels my interest so strongly that I can’t stop thinking about it.
Obama could have nominated one of the serious Democratic education reformers, like Washington, D.C.’s Michelle Rhee or New York City’s Joel Klein. That would have signaled that Obama’s bold embrace of reform principles like parental choice (“I think it’s important to foster competition”) and merit pay during the campaign was no mere rhetorical cover, but a serious call to arms. Such a pick would have heralded a renewed struggle in Washington over union control of the government education monopoly. And it would have vindicated the predictions made by some that the inexorable logic of History would inevitably override Obama’s free will and force him to become a champion of reform.
On the other hand, Obama could have picked a conventional Democratic education figure — that is, a union shill — signaling that he didn’t plan to rock the monopoly’s boat and would use education issues to pay back his allies in the unions with yet more lavish spending and no accountability for results.
In that sense, a more “boring” (in the sense of “conventional”) choice would actually have been a much less boring choice, because it would have been an open, undeniable break from Obama’s reformist campaign rhetoric.
And that’s exactly where a lot of us thought we were headed. Obama’s choice of Linda Darling-Hammond to head up the education wing of the transition certainly made the choice of a union shill seem likely.
But no. Obama transcends the tired old debates and false choices of the old politics. He builds bridges and reaches across isles and spans expanses, etc.
So he chose … a guy who has pushed to make things a little better here and there on the margins, but has never done anything to cause the union monopolists to lose any serious sleep over him.
If a real reformer would have signaled new educational battles ahead, and a shill would have signaled a return to the days of union domination, what does Arne Duncan signal?
Well, nobody really knows, but for what it’s worth, my guess is this: Obama doesn’t plan to lift a finger either way on education, and wants to keep the issue as far out of the news as possible, so he can concentrate on higher priorities — namely, transforming the nation’s slow-motion health-care disaster into a fast-motion disaster, and destroying the economy with new environmental mandates.
That’s bad news for those (myself not among them) who had cherished hopes for a federal push for real reform in the short term. We’ll have to keep working for change at the state level, where in 2008 we’ve racked up a track record that we should be proud of. On the other hand, the Duncan appointment does show that the teachers’ unions can’t count on getting a free ride anymore, even when their friends are in power. The unions’ friends are getting a lot less friendly than they used to be.
Slowly but surely, their day is ending.