A couple of weeks ago, a senior adviser to Barack Obama dismissed the argument raging at the time over the choice the president-elect faced in naming a secretary of education.

Obama’s options were said to be clear-cut: He could either pick a reformer, or he could select someone acceptable to teachers unions. But the adviser called this formulation “a false dichotomy,” adding: “There are a lot of school superintendents around the country who are not anti-union, but who know how to drive a hard bargain.”

And that explains how Obama settled on Arne Duncan, his basketball friend and the widely respected leader of Chicago’s public school system. Of all of Obama’s Cabinet choices, none was quite so characteristic of the incoming president’s worldview.

Because Duncan gets along with teachers unions but is also seen as a reformer, his selection was interpreted as a politically shrewd, split-the-difference choice.

But that is not the whole story. Lurking behind Obama’s talk about getting beyond ideology and stale disputes is an effort to undercut the success that conservatives have enjoyed in framing arguments that leave Democrats and liberals at an automatic disadvantage.

To declare that the only test of a politician’s commitment to reform is a willingness to break with unions creates a no-win choice for Democrats. They must either betray long-standing allies or face condemnation as the captives of special interests.

Obama, said Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education in the administration of George H.W. Bush, is trying to “break out” of a definition of reform drawn almost entirely from “the Republican agenda.”

That agenda focuses on “being tough on the unions, offering more choices, and pushing for more accountability.” While reformers of all stripes support accountability, this list actually constrains the options for those who would improve the public schools.

Duncan has already made clear that he refuses to abide by the conventions of the current education debate. When the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal and pro-labor think tank, circulated an education manifesto that focused on expanding the services for poor children available at public schools, Duncan signed on.

The statement, reflecting a view strongly held by teachers groups, rejected the idea that “schools alone can offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on learning.” It called for “high-quality early childhood and pre-school programs, after-school and summer programs, and programs that develop parents’ capacity to support their children’s education.”

But Duncan also signed a statement from the Education Equality Project associated with Joel Klein, the school chancellor in New York City, and Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools, both of them heroes to the tough-on-the-unions camp.

The statement called for “an effective teacher in every classroom, and an effective principal in every school, by paying educators as the professionals they are, by giving them the tools and training they need to succeed, and by making tough decisions about those who do not.”

Duncan was one of the few education experts to put his name on both statements. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sees this as a sign that “he is not an ideologue” and is willing to reach widely for new ideas.

“Way too much has been made of this battle between the reformers and the status quo,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a group respected by reformers. She credits Duncan for dealing with “hard problems” that get scant attention in the set-piece education debates, including the need to change high school education and improve curricula. He pushed hard to raise teacher quality, working closely with the New Teacher Project, which Rhee founded, to expand recruitment.

It’s a mistake, in any event, to paint all union officials with a single brush. Some school systems are more resistant to change than others. In the nation’s capital, it’s impossible not to respect Rhee’s sense of urgency and her passion for results.

But some union officials are eager to cooperate with reform efforts. When she headed the union local in Cincinnati, Sue Taylor, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, supported “additional pay for additional responsibilities” aimed at rewarding exceptional teaching. “We developed our own accountability system,” Taylor says. “We do have to raise standards. … The key is collaboration.”

Collaboration is what Duncan and Obama are all about. Instead of taking sides in the education argument as it stands, they want to change the debate altogether. How Duncan fares will be a central test of Barack Obama’s philosophy of governing.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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