CHICAGO (AFP) – President-elect Barack Obama Tuesday nominated Arne Duncan, the tough-minded Chicago schools superintendent, as his education secretary tasked with overhauling US schools.
At a news conference, Obama vowed new funding for schools plus new demands on teachers and parents, arguing it was "morally unacceptable for our children and economically untenable for America" to allow standards to slip further.
The president-elect, whose own daughters have attended private schools in Chicago and are expected to go to elite schools in Washington, said "that in the long run, the path to jobs and growth begins in America's classrooms."
He said Duncan was a "hands-on" reformer whose results were shown in producing school graduates with "the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job."
Duncan, 44, is a former professional basketball player who has been the chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, the country's third largest school system, for seven years.
He will aim to raise standards at struggling public schools while not antagonizing the powerful teachers' unions that supported the Obama campaign.
Obama is moving unusually early to round out his cabinet. He was to hold his third press briefing of this week Wednesday, reportedly to tap Colorado Senator Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior.
On education, Obama is vowing to overhaul President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law, an attempt to impose uniform standards across the nation's bewildering array of local school systems.
On the campaign trail, the Democrat said Bush "left the money behind" by failing to match the legislation's promises with adequate funding, and is promising now to hire an "army of teachers" and expand early education.
But he has been coy on the issue of vouchers, an idea favored by many Republicans as a way for poorer children to get a better education, but which the unions say would condemn troubled schools to perpetual failure.
Rankings by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, among other groups, consistently show US children trailing their counterparts in other industrialized nations in reading, mathematics and science.
One study in April by the EPE Research Center and the America's Promise Alliance said that three out of 10 US teenagers do not graduate from high school -- with black and native American students doing worst of all.
Thanks in part to the lavish endowments enjoyed by the Ivy League universities, higher education in the United States is a world-beater. But soaring tuition costs are making college unaffordable for many.
In a line that was guaranteed to garner enthusisastic applause at his campaign rallies, Obama promised to make college accessible to all through a 4,000 dollar tax credit, repaid by the student through community service.
Duncan, a Harvard graduate who played professional basketball in Australia from 1987 to 1991, returned to his native Chicago in 1992 to direct an initiative to create new chances for inner-city schoolchildren.
At the news conference, Duncan said education was "the civil rights issue of our generation and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair and just society."
"While there are no simple answers, I know from experience that when you focus on basics like reading and math, when you embrace innovative new approaches to learning, and when you create a professional climate that attracts great teachers -- you can make a difference for children," he said.