In some ways, President-elect Barack Obama's choice of a nominee to head the U.S. Department of Education sounds like one of the best selections yet for the new administration. That's good - because improving the nation's public schools is of critical importance.
Obama announced Tuesday that he will nominate Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, to be secretary of education.
According to initial reports about Duncan, he has been a strong, effective leader in Chicago. He was named to head the city school district in 2001 - and since he took the reins, both test scores and graduation rates have increased somewhat. That is an impressive achievement in what for many years was among the worst of America's urban school systems.
"When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn't blink," Obama proclaimed. In some cases, that certainly seems to be true. After taking over Chicago schools, Duncan closed some of the worst. He also supported expansion of charter schools. And, believe it or not, he was able to establish a merit pay system for educators. Somehow, he managed to gain the Chicago teachers' union's approval of that program.
Duncan also has defended the controversial No Child Left Behind law - while seeking more flexibility and more money for school districts.
On balance, Duncan appears to be a good pick. More needs to be known about his administration in Chicago - and about just how effective his reforms have been. We hope senators who must confirm him will insist on having those details - and will not simply rubber-stamp Obama's choice.
While most school reform occurs at the local and state levels, leadership in Washington is important. That is true particularly because of the federal government's increasing power over public schools. That makes scrutiny of Duncan absolutely vital.