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Warthen: Inez Tenenbaum for Obama’s Cabinet?

NOW THAT HE’S got his economic and national security teams lined up, President-Elect Obama can turn to the “second-tier” Cabinet positions, such as Secretary of Education.

Normally, I wouldn’t take all that much interest in the Education job. I don’t see education as a proper function of the federal government; it’s a state responsibility. And when the feds have gotten involved in K-12, they’ve generally mucked it up. I’m not a fan of Ronald Reagan, but he did get some things right, and one of them was proposing to do away with the U.S. Department of Education. You’ll notice, however, that after all that talk, he didn’t actually get rid of it. So the department is there, and somebody is going to run it.

That being the case, I hope the somebody Barack Obama chooses is our own Inez Tenenbaum. At this point you’re thinking two things: First, “Does she really have a shot at that?” I don’t know. There are a lot of lists, short and long, floating around, and she’s on some and not on others. The Associated Press had her on a short list of five names (which also included Colin Powell) at the end of November, but when they moved the same list on Thursday, she wasn’t on it (nor was Gen. Powell). On the same day, MSNBC posted a long list on its Web site that included her (and Gen. Powell). Other names regularly mentioned include Arne Duncan, who runs Chicago public schools, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

Inez (disclosure here — I call her Inez because her husband, Samuel, is a friend) doesn’t make it on David Brooks’ short list in his column on the facing page. But we’ll see.

Now for the second thing you’re thinking, especially if you’re one of those who buy into the notion that public schools in South Carolina are irredeemable, and anyone who has ever had anything to do with them is tainted. When I mentioned Inez as a contender for the job the other day, someone who should know better said it would be ironic for two Democratic secretaries in a row to be from South Carolina, since our schools struggle so.

No, it wouldn’t. It would be perfectly fitting, especially given Inez Tenenbaum’s record as state superintendent from 1999-2007.

There are achievements that can be quantified, such as South Carolina’s students scoring at or above the national average on nationally recognized standardized tests for the first time. Our fourth- and eighth-graders even scored at the very top in math and science on the National Assessment of Education Progress.

But what of the SAT, the favored test of naysayers? During her tenure, our average rose 32 points, the greatest gain of any state where most graduating seniors take the test. No, we didn’t catch up — we just improved faster than anyone.

But what impressed me most about her performance was that she took the situation she had and did the most she could with it. The most dramatic example: her implementation of the Education Accountability Act. The EAA was enacted the year she was elected, pushed by business leaders and a conservative Republican governor, and largely opposed by Democrats and professional educators. She might have dragged her feet, but instead she fully embraced the task of implementing accountability, in spite of institutional resistance.

How did she do on that? The year she left office, Education Week ranked South Carolina No. 1 in the nation for accountability. The research organization Education Trust ranked our state as tied (with Maine) at No. 1 in the rigor of our proficiency standards; The Princeton Review rated our testing system 11th best.

Our state’s leadership on this front ironically became a liability when No Child Left Behind came along. That’s because each state was judged by how well it met its own standards and expectations, and ours were higher than other states’.

So as long as there is a U.S. Department of Education, and especially while NCLB remains law, I want the person in charge of administering it to know the reality here in South Carolina.

But what makes Inez Tenenbaum, and Dick Riley before her, better suited than folks from other parts of the country at addressing the nation’s real K-12 problems? Consider the sheer magnitude of our challenges, based in generations of slavery, Jim Crow and abject poverty. Before the Civil War, our state had more slaves than free people. We integrated our schools 16 years AFTER Brown vs. Board of Education, even though the case started here. The achievement gap for poor and minority students is a national problem, but no one has more experience combating it than Gov. Riley and Inez Tenenbaum.

Inez isn’t talking about her candidacy, or non-candidacy. But she did say some things about Barack Obama and education that I liked hearing.

She’s had time to think about this because she’s one of the experts who helped him draft his education platform (which you can read online, linked from my blog). Rather than talk about the federal government trying to run our schools, she speaks of the historic opportunity Mr. Obama has to lead by example.

She remembers how John Kennedy got kids engaged in physical fitness when she was in school, mainly by talking it up. A president Obama can do the same with parental involvement, parlaying the excitement his election has generated into an ongoing movement. She has been deeply impressed by his own commitment to education, from seizing every opportunity offered in his own life to his involvement in his daughters’ schooling — she heard him, on the campaign bus here in South Carolina, talking to his girls on the phone about every detail of their day at school. He was engaged in the way all parents should be.

Barack Obama, as she describes it, has the potential to lead on education without pushing coercive new laws or creating new bureaucracies.

Now that’s a federal role in education I can get behind.

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