The crossroads facing president-elect Obama on education

Not to keep beating the same drum, but where now-President-elect Barack Obama will land in the education wars is still a mystery.

Today’s Washington Post suggests he could bypass the peacemaker, middle-ground approach by choosing as his Secretary of Education one of the fiercest warriors in the education battle: Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. That would be a bombshell decision to side decisively with that nameless movement that includes Klein, Obama adviser Jon Schnur, and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. On the other hand, Obama has also been seeking advice from representatives on the other side of the education wars, including Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was still stumping for him at Teachers College just days ago.

Highlighting the coming crossroads are two statements that came out late last night and early this morning, reacting to Obama’s election.

The money manager and philanthropist Whitney Tilson, who was an early Teach For America staffer and who serves on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, says Obama will have to fight power to transform education. I assume this means longtime power brokers such as the teachers union. Tilson’s e-mail:

The single most important decision President-elect Obama will make in this area is picking his Secretary of Education because — let’s be honest — with so many urgent priorities (the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, healthcare, etc.), Obama himself isn’t going to have the time or political capital to spend on education reform in the early part of his first term, so the Secretary of Education is going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting. But he/she won’t be able to do it alone.  Reforming our schools will also depend on all of us continuing to be involved to keep PUSHING.  As Obama has said many times, “power does not concede easily”, so take a day to relax and then let’s get back to work!

On the other hand, teachers union president Randi Weingarten emphasizes that Obama will have to work together with the union:

At a time when the focus on strengthening public education has been all but eclipsed by other issues, Sen. Obama has shown both deep understanding of, and real interest in, the need to ensure every child receives a world-class education. The members and leaders of the American Federation of Teachers welcome President-elect Obama’s commitment to working together to strengthen public education. We look forward to partnering with him and with members of both parties to fulfill this promise.

Maybe the choice is not which side to take, but whether to take a side at all.