With yesterday’s arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for an alleged “pay-to-play” scheme to fill President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, one has to wonder about the larger implications on Obama’s remaining Cabinet appointments. The history of ethics in Chicago politics is legendary. Blagojevich’s alleged exploits are the latest chapter, perhaps a little more brazen and little more offensive than some of those that came before him. But it reminds us of the Chicago of old, and makes us wonder what the Illinois governor and his chief of staff may have been up to in the past.
So what does all of this have to do with education? This unfortunate media attention on the future of Obama’s Senate seat begs one simple question — wither Arnie Duncan? Don’t get Eduflack wrong. The Chicago Public Schools Superintendent isn’t within a country mile of any of this, nor has he faced any ethics issues in the past. But he runs the real risk of guilt by association. He, unfortunately, gets partially tagged by corrupt governors and a history of corrupt city officials and the Chicago machine.
Is it fair? Of course not. But one has to assume that a Chicago appointment to the presidential cabinet, at this stage of the game, will cause some to go looking for a invisible quid pro quo. Completely unjustified and unfair, yes, but that’s politics. At the end of the day, it may be easier to avoid the choice than to have confirmation or media questions about Duncan’s specific relationship with the governor, past discussions with his staff, and what may or may not have been asked for along the way.
Last week, The New York Times and The Washington Post both raised the ante on selecting an EdSec, and we continue to wait to see even the faintest of whiffs of white smoke regarding current thinking. How will the Blagojevich situation affect Duncan’s chances? Only time will tell. Hopefully, Duncan’s candidacy will be determined based solely on the merits and on his ability to manage a large federal agency, instigate and lead school improvement efforts, and master the bully pulpit for school change.
But the political practicalities open the field a little more widely for other candidates. SC Education Commissioner Inez Tannenbaum’s stock seems to be on the rise. The possibility of former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus is coming up strong on the outside. Despite popular opinion, Eduflack would still like to believe that NC Gov. Mike Easley is the darkhorse (and the best candidate). Eduflack has heard Penn State University President Graham Spanier is under serious consideration. And we still have the list of expecteds (Joel Klein and Linda Darling-Hammond tops among them). Regardless, now is the time for a selection for EdSec. We need to know who is taking charge of those little red schoolhouses (or what remains of them) down on Maryland Avenue.