Education reformer gets post in US cabinet


BARACK OBAMA has named Arne Duncan, the head of Chicago's school system and a friend of the president-elect since the early 1990s, as education secretary, describing as "morally unacceptable" the failure to improve American schools.

"When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners. For Arne, school reform isn't just a theory in a book - it's the cause of his life. And the results aren't just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job," Mr Obama said.

Mr Duncan, who yesterday described education as "the civil rights issue of this generation" is an education reformer who favours performance-related pay for teachers but is friendly with teachers' unions.

"He's not beholden to any one ideology - and he doesn't hesitate for one minute to do what needs to be done," Mr Obama said.

"He's championed good charter schools - even when it was controversial. He's shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs - even when it was unpopular."

Mr Obama took a number of questions after yesterday's announcement but he cut off a reporter who asked about discussions his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had with Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich about who should succeed the president-elect in the US Senate. Mr Blagojevich was arrested last week for allegedly trying to sell the seat to the highest bidder and Illinois legislators this week took the first steps towards impeaching him.

Mr Obama has promised to release details of all contacts between his staff and the governor's office on the issue but he said that federal prosecutors had requested that the information should not be made public until next week.

The president-elect sidestepped a question about whether his successor should be appointed by the next governor of Illinois or if a special election should be held to fill the seat.

Democrats fear they could lose the seat in a special election and Mr Obama said yesterday that he would let the Illinois legislature decide how his successor should be chosen.

Mr Obama's seat is one of a number of senate vacancies that have emerged as he forms his administration, including Hillary Clinton's seat in New York.

Some of Mrs Clinton's supporters in New York have questioned whether Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the assassinated president and a friend of Mr Obama's, has the right experience for the Senate.

Ms Kennedy has emerged as the frontrunner to succeed Mrs Clinton after she asked New York governor David Patterson to consider appointing her. The next senator would have to defend the seat in 2010 and Ms Kennedy's supporters argue that she is best placed to raise the necessary funds to see off any high-profile Republican challenger such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani or Congressman Peter King.

Meanwhile, President George Bush is backing his brother Jeb, a former governor of Florida, to succeed Republican senator Mel Martinez, who is stepping down.

"He would be an awesome US senator," Mr Bush told the website RealClearPolitics.

"I think the party would benefit a lot by having Jeb Bush in the US Senate. I think Florida would benefit a lot. I think the country would benefit a lot. And I think the Republican Party would benefit a lot. He is a proven leader who, when given responsibilities, succeeded." The president expressed concern that his party has become too exclusive and has turned off many voters, notably Hispanics.

"Caring about people is an integral part of getting people to believe in you," Mr Bush said. "A guy says, 'They don't care about me, they don't respect my heritage' - you can't get their vote no matter what your philosophy is."