Education was relegated to the outskirts of the presidential campaign this year, always a fourth or fifth runner-up to such pressing matters as the economy, Iraq and health care.
With few people asking penetrating questions on the issue, Barack Obama was able to sound as though he sided both with traditionalist teachers unions and with accountability-minded reformers.
Now that it's time to name an Education secretary, no one is sure in which direction he's headed.
Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was named to Obama's education transition team, is one of the most- mentioned candidates. As a severe critic of the No Child Left Behind Act and an opponent of merit pay for teachers, she is favored by teachers unions.
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The accountability camp prefers names such as New York schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who has spearheaded large-scale reforms in the nation's largest school district.
One side says that what students need are major improvements in health and social services, as well as drastic increases in school funding.
The other says that schools wrongly lay the blame for students' low achievement on poverty instead of on lackluster teaching and low expectations.
Both are right. Schools are short the money needed to turn barely literate teenagers into employable young adults, and No Child Left Behind is riddled with faults.
After years of public battering, schools need a leader who is less an ideologue than a pragmatist, who puts children ahead of both union and political priorities.