On Election Day, Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan was among a privileged few playing basketball with Sen. Barack Obama at Attack Athletics Center on the West Side.
“We made sure he didn’t get hurt,“ Duncan said by phone yesterday. “That would have been bad.“
The jockeying on the court, though, is nothing compared to the off-the-court action as Obama assembles his White House team. Many of Chicago's biggest names in public affairs could be tapped to serve in the Obama Administration.
Duncan has been mentioned as a potential Secretary of Education. But Duncan, a Harvard University graduate who came to CPS in 1998, says he hasn't talked about the issue with Obama.
There has been no talk “of it whatsoever,” Duncan says.
Yesterday, Obama offered Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel the White House Chief of Staff position. Emanuel has not yet accepted or rejected the job.
Along with that move, Obama named two other Chicagoans as transition team leaders: John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton; and Valerie Jarrett, a friend of the Obama family and one of the top advisors during Obama‘s presidential campaign. Also named to the team was Pete Rouse, a chief of staff for Obama‘s senate office.
More Chicagoans and other leaders throughout the state are likely to find positions within Obama‘s White House.
Among them, says Chicago political consultant Don Rose, might be political consultant David Axelrod, an advisor to Obama since 2004, and Austin Goolsby, a University of Chicago professor who could help Obama‘s economics team.
But the pool goes deeper.
“Chicago is a town that has a lot of quantity and quality of talent,” says Dave Lundy, a former political consultant and now president of Aileron Communications in Chicago. “It‘s a little unique in that way. You didn‘t really have that quanity and quality in Little Rock," which was Clinton‘s home base.
However, cautions Lundy, Obama will be “president of the United States,” meaning he can’t draw from Chicago to the exclusion of candidates elsewhere.
On Election Night, Duncan was at Grant Park to hear Obama‘s victory speech, along with other prominent Chicagoans, including Oprah Winfrey, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jesse Ruiz, the Illinois Board of Education chair. The moment touched Duncan, as it did millions worldwide.
“It was surreal, a little bit emotional. Unbelievable,” Duncan says.
Duncan says he believes that Obama will do more for education than perhaps any other president in history.
The CPS chief says he'll do whatever he can to help when Obama begins his four-year term in January.
“All of us have worked as much as we could to get him elected,” Duncan says.
Among the educational issues Obama faces is the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, and the funding to support it.
If Duncan becomes a serious candidate for Secretary of Education, he would have some formidable competition.
Linda Darling-Hammond is reported to be a top candidate. An education professor at Stanford University whose research has focused on school restructuring, Darling-Hammond was an advisor to Obama’s campaign. Colin L. Powell, a former secretary of state under President Bush, was one of the high-profile candidates named by MSNBC.
Other candidates include former North Carolina governor James B. Hunt Jr. and Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who, like Duncan, is in the midst of a school-reform restructuring process within that city’s urban schools.
Ruiz, who was a student in one of Obama’s law classes at the University of Chicago in 1994, says Duncan's experience as chief of the country's third-largest school district would make him a wise choice.
“I think Arnie would be a good Secretary of Education,“ says Ruiz.
Ruiz cites Duncan’s commitment to school reform in Chicago. The city’s Illinois Standard Achievement Test scores have increased for seven consecutive years and high school dropout rates are going down.
“He (Duncan) acknowledges the job’s not done,“ Ruiz says. “The trajectory they’re on is good.“
But the fact that CPS began its school turnaround program just two years ago could prove a stumbling block for Duncan’s candidacy. Mayor Richard M. Daley has said he'd like to keep Duncan in Chicago to continue those efforts, as well as the Renaissance 2010 project, which calls for construction of 100 new schools by 2010.
It’s a point Duncan brought up himself at a news conference two weeks ago.
“We’ve come a long way here, but the work is unfinished here,” Duncan says. “There’s a long way to go and this is where I’m absolutely focused.”
Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.