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Two Reasons to Like Chicago's Arne Duncan for Education Secretary

Lisa Snell
December 15, 2008, 11:31am

Obama has chosen Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan for education secretary. Duncan was one of our good picks in Shikha Dalmia's analysis of the best picks for Obama's cabinet. There are really two reasons to like Duncan. On the one hand Chicago public schools have only shown moderate improvement during Duncan's tenure. On the other hand, Duncan embraces two public school ideas that have the potential to revolutionize public schools in the United States. First, Duncan is a robust supporter of charter schools. As Mike Petrilli at Fordham's Flypaper explains:
Get ready for another golden era for charter schools. In many ways, the Bill Clinton years were better for charters than the George Bush years. Largely that's because the press and the public expects Republicans to support choice and charters; it's much more powerful when Democrats do so. And by all accounts, Arne Duncan loves charter schools. One person told me that Duncan would make every school a charter school if he could. But at the least, he will be an effective advocate for the view that urban districts can use chartering to promote their larger reform agendas. Which means charters are going mainstream.
This is great news and is reinforced by the continuing good news about charter schools in California. This year California has 750 charter schools operating in the state with 12 charter schools out of the top 15 highest-performing schools serving low-income students in California. The second reason to like Arne Duncan is that he understands and embraces the idea that per-pupil funding should follow students into schools. Chicago has been experimenting with a pilot weighted student formula-type program under Arne Duncan's seven-year tenure. Again, this program should have been pursued more aggressively. As Catalyst-Chicago has reported: Chief Financial Officer Pedro Martinez predicted three years ago that all CPS schools would, by this fiscal year, operate under per-pupil budgeting–a funding approach taking hold in urban districts across the country. But just 15 percent of all schools–most of which are charters–now operate under the model. The expansion of a pilot project, now in 14 regular schools, is on hold. However, 15 percent of Chicago schools are funded on a per-pupil basis with 67 charter schools, 8 contract schools, and 18 performance schools run as empowered schools. Arne Duncan gets the concept and even clearly explains it in the District budget book, that "funding is not tied to positions, which gives these schools much more flexibility in deciding how to spend their budget dollars." This is significant because Chicago's model does not distinguish between the type of school: charter, contract, traditional public, instead this pilot project attaches dollars to students and lets students vote with their feet by choosing a school. This is the vision of school finance we need to make school funding more transparent and attached to the backs of kids. We need the funding to follow the child and not fund programs, staff, or certain types of schools. I examine national trends in weighted student funding for Reason's 2008 Annual Privatization Report.

Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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