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Ruben Navarrette: Slam dunk choice

In putting together his Cabinet, President-elect Barack Obama has made some risky choices -- but at least one could be a slam-dunk.

Obama's choice of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan as secretary of education looks like good news all around. The 44-year-old Harvard-educated reformer and one-time pro basketball player has spent the last seven years overseeing the third-largest school district in the country.

On the job, he railed against the achievement gap between low- and high-income students and tried to close it by setting higher goals and demanding results.

Even in a public school system that often tolerates mediocrity, harbors low expectations and puts the interests of adults before those of children, Duncan's reform model isn't exactly unique.

Other teachers and administrators have figured out that the first step to turning out better students is to reverse the conventional thinking, demand more rather than less, and increase accountability at all levels.

Yet, what's remarkable is that Duncan somehow managed to make changes to the educational system in Chicago without antagonizing the teachers unions that instinctively resist change.

He supports merit pay for teachers, charter schools for students, and school choice for parents. He also supports the indispensable but controversial education reform law No Child Left Behind, although he'd like to see Congress spend more money on it.

He would probably also like more flexibility since he himself has taken liberties with NCLB, such as when he decreed that students who scored poorly on standardized tests because they had limited English proficiency need not be held back even though the law allowed for it.

Insisting that the right to a quality education is nothing short of a civil right, Duncan wasn't afraid to rankle parents by closing down failing schools in Chicago or to suggest opening the nation's first gay-friendly high school.

He even practiced a little tough love, making students who wanted to drop out sign declarations that said: "I will not be able to afford many things that I will see others acquiring," or "I will be less likely to find good jobs that pay well, bad jobs that don't pay well, or maybe any jobs."

For those who studied hard and got good grades, the schools chief launched a program using private donations to pay students for academic achievement.

Duncan has a reputation for seeking out different points of views before making decisions. He also has little tolerance for the old educational battles that pit reformers against those trying to maintain the status quo.

It will be interesting to see if Duncan can stay out of the fray with national teachers unions that have shown no willingness to negotiate, even with their friends.

Ask Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, about that.

As the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Miller tried to work out a compromise that would preserve the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind, but the unions wouldn't have any of it.

Now, as education secretary, it will be Duncan's job to convince Congress to reauthorize the law, which -- according to Bush administration officials -- has narrowed the achievement gap between minorities and white students.

If confirmed, Arne Duncan should focus on pursuing five goals -- maintaining accountability, raising expectations, encouraging innovative approaches to teaching, ending the culture of excuses for why some students don't perform as well as others, and reminding everyone that schools exist for the enrichment of students who learn there, not for the convenience of adults who work there.

If Duncan can serve as a passionate advocate for the nation's children without getting drawn into the old wars, then more power to him.

All Cabinet officials face pitfalls. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton will have to learn to let Obama's worldview take precedence.

Janet Napolitano, who straddled the fence on immigration as Arizona governor, probably won't be able to achieve that balancing act as head of homeland security.

And Timothy Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank selected by Obama to become Treasury secretary, may be too close to Wall Street to challenge it.

Likewise, Duncan will have to stand up to organized labor in the form of teachers unions.

Avoiding conflict shouldn't mean surrendering to the powers that be. This job is too important. After all, how we educate our citizenry will help determine nothing less than the future prosperity and security of the country.

And the person who sets the tone is the secretary of education.

Reach Ruben Navarrette at ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.