With the elections behind us and the transition moving forward, the most important decision affecting the future of our public schools is President-Elect Obama's selection to succeed Margaret Spellings as Secretary of Education.
Speculation over the post - and attention to the issue of education - has only increased in recent days, fueled by major coverage in Time, the New York Times and the Associated Press.
During the campaign, candidate Obama went further on education reform than anyone expected - defying the status quo by supporting merit pay and charter schools, among other reform-minded proposals. Obama's speeches showed him to be committed to doing whatever it takes to fix our schools.
Now is the time for Obama to turn rhetoric into action by nominating for Education Secretary someone committed to carrying out real reform that extends from the Department of Education down to every classroom in America - reforms that demand the best from our students and our teachers. He can best do that by nominating someone who has a real record of reform, putting the interests of our students ahead of special interests and knows that schools exist to prepare our students for college and life, not to act as a tool of social experimentation.
David Brooks of the New York Times has it exactly right:
"The stakes are huge. For the first time in decades, there is real momentum for reform. It's not only Rhee and Klein -- the celebrities -- but also superintendents in cities across America who are getting better teachers into the classrooms and producing measurable results. There is an unprecedented political coalition building, among liberals as well as conservatives, for radical reform."
Brooks spells out the two camps in education: The reformers, and the defenders of the status quo. The reformers realize that schools do not have the capacity to solve every problem in a child's life. They also realize that the core mission of schools is to teach children how to read, write, count, and think. Obama should nominate a reformer to be his Secretary of Education to ensure that this mission is carried out in every classroom in America.
President-elect Obama has made clear the connection between school construction and jobs. There's no doubt that the condition of a school building -- its facade -- is important to creating the proper conditions for learning. What's more important, however, is creating those conditions within in the classroom. That doesn't start with bricks and mortar; it starts with teachers. If we are going to devote precious resources to rebuilding and repairing school buildings, we must repair what's broken in our schoolrooms. Improving learning in our schools -- putting quality teachers in the classroom and raising expectations -- will have a far longer impact on economic growth than a series of construction projects.
Barack Obama has a tremendous amount of goodwill and political capital with which he can make education a civil right for every student in America.
Let's hope he has the courage of his convictions to do so.