Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan, who over seven years maintained a positive story line for the troubled district, will join longtime basketball buddy Barack Obama's Cabinet as secretary of Education, a transition source said.
Obama's nomination is to be announced today during a joint appearance at Dodge Renaissance Academy here.
Since 2001, when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley plucked Duncan from obscurity to head the country's third-largest school district, Duncan has gained a reputation as a reformer who isn't afraid to rankle the teachers union and punish underperforming schools.
His decisions to pay students for good grades, back an unrealized plan for a gay-friendly high school and consider boarding schools often polarized the community while bolstering his renegade image.
"He has the brains, courage, creativity and temperament for the job," said former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas, who hired Duncan as his deputy chief of staff in 1998. "And he's very close to the president, which is an important thing too."
Duncan, who grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood not far from Obama's home, was among the architects of Obama's education policy. The two have been friends for more than a decade, and Duncan was among the group of friends who played basketball with Obama on election day.
Duncan did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
Under Duncan's watch, 53 new public schools were opened and the graduation rate has jumped nearly 6 percentage points.
"Arne has always seen education as a civil rights issue," said Phyllis Lockett, president and chief executive of the Renaissance Schools Fund, which assists the district with its efforts to shutter and revamp low-performing neighborhood schools.
Chicago's public schools have seen increases in some state test scores for the last seven years, though they continue to lag behind the Illinois average.
Overall, 65.4% of the city's elementary-school students met or exceeded state standards, an increase of 1.3 percentage points from 2007.
Many describe Duncan as a conciliatory character, open to new ideas and realistic about disconcerting trends -- but he has not always avoided controversy in Chicago's politically charged educational system.
Community organizations have expressed frustrations over disparities in test scores between minority and low-income students and students at predominantly white and affluent schools.
Some school reformers have questioned Renaissance 2010, a program to close and redevelop low-performing neighborhood schools. Under Duncan's watch, hundreds of teachers have lost their jobs when he overhauled struggling schools and forced the staff members to reapply for their positions.
When Duncan took over the schools chief position, he had limited management and financial experience beyond a few years running a small, nonprofit education program. He spent three years working under Vallas, but never had a high enough post to merit his own secretary.
Like Obama, Duncan attended Harvard, where he took a year off from his sociology studies to become a tutor. A co-captain of Harvard's basketball team and a first-team Academic All-American, Duncan bombed a tryout with the Boston Celtics before heading to Australia, where he played pro ball for four years.
Tribune reporters Stacy St. Clair, John McCormick, Tara Malone, Darnell Little and Hal Dardick contributed to this report.