President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday tapped Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan to be his education secretary, calling Duncan a hands-on and unyielding advocate who would help craft a "new vision" for education in America.
Duncan has been in charge of the country's third-largest school district for the past seven years, and has focused on improving struggling schools, closing those that fail and getting better teachers.
Obama, calling Duncan a friend, touted his record of reducing drop-out rates and improving elementary test scores, and said his nominee would not hesitate to do what's necessary to improve the nation's schools.
"When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners," Obama said. "When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn't blink."
Obama lamented the current state of education, and said improvements are needed to make the country more competitive in a global economy.
"For years, we've talked our education problems to death in Washington, but we've failed to act," Obama said. "We can't continue like this. It's morally unacceptable for our children, and economically untenable for America."
Duncan ran an education nonprofit on Chicago's South Side before working in Chicago Public Schools under former chief Paul Vallas, now the schools chief in New Orleans.
The schools chief said Tuesday that education is his "life's work," and that "it is the civil rights issue of our generation."
Duncan would take over a sprawling department that has focused during the Bush administration in winning passage and then implementing the president's signature No Child Left Behind education program.
That effort has proven controversial, with supporters saying it is making progress in improving student skills, while local officials complain it focuses too much attention on standardized tests.
A 44-year-old Harvard graduate, Duncan has played pickup basketball with Obama since the 1990s. Duncan co-captained the Harvard basketball team and played professionally in Australia before beginning his education career.
Duncan's nomination will please reform advocates who wanted a big-city schools chief who has sought to hold schools and teachers accountable for student performance; they had backed Duncan or New York's Joel Klein.
These advocates have squared off against teachers' unions in a contentious debate among Democrats over whom Obama should choose. Unions, an influential segment of the party base, wanted a strong advocate for their members such as Obama adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor.
Yet Duncan's nomination may please the unions, who have said Duncan seems willing to work with them.
Obama managed during his campaign to avoid taking sides in the debate, which centers on accountability and the fate of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law. Duncan also has tried to appeal to both factions; he signed competing manifestos from each side earlier this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.