Politics & Policy

Arne Duncan’s Dismal Record

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (Andrew Burton/Getty)

On Friday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced he would be stepping down after nearly seven years on the job. This makes it a good moment to assess Duncan’s legacy, especially since his tenure has been shrouded by more than its fair share of puffery and overheated PR. This was predictable when it came to the usual Obama cheerleaders (Tom Friedman wanted Duncan to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state). But it also showed up at times as generous, even fawning, laurels tossed by the likes of David Brooks, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Lamar Alexander.

It’s easy to see why so many nice things have been said. Duncan is a likable man who drips with passion and sincerity. Moreover, when Duncan and President Obama came to power, education enjoyed a long tradition of bipartisan support — and the nation’s “school reform” coalition was a model of bipartisan comity. And Duncan stood up for charter schools, challenged the nation’s education schools, and called for reforms to teacher tenure and pay. He deserves credit for this.

But the bad far outweighed the good. This was not due to any malice on Duncan’s part, but mostly because Duncan — the former Chicago schools chief — approached the U.S. Department of Education as if it were the nation’s school board and he had been appointed the nation’s superintendent. He was dismissive of Congress, impatient with recalcitrant states, and contemptuous of those worried about federal authority run amok.

#share#The result: Duncan simultaneously exploited and fractured the bipartisan goodwill that had greeted him in 2009, as he launched a war on for-profit colleges, manufactured hysteria over a supposed wave of campus rape, and pushed for a massive expansion of the federal role in everything from pre-K to school discipline.

It’s worth reviewing a few of the particulars.

There was the mean-spirited partisanship. When congressional Republicans raised concerns about the administration’s preschool proposals, Duncan dismissed such worries as “morally indefensible” and tantamount to “education malpractice.”

Duncan simultaneously exploited and fractured the bipartisan goodwill that had greeted him in 2009.

There was the bureaucratic, Washington-centric Race to the Top program. Race to the Top is often hailed as Duncan’s signature success. If so, that’s a sad commentary. Congress earmarked more than $4 billion in stimulus funding to support states tackling four broad areas of reform. Duncan’s team proceeded to turn that into a prescriptive 19-item checklist, one that required states to pledge fealty to Duncan’s reform agenda — and on his timeline. The program massively increased federal control over state policy, pushed states to adopt the Common Core even before it had been committed to paper — in fact, Race to the Top was literally unwinnable if states didn’t adopt the standards — and led to rushed and half-baked proposals of potentially good ideas (like overhauling teacher evaluation).

There was the denigration of Common Core opponents. Duncan made Common Core a condition not only of the Race to the Top program but also of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers. And when all the strong-arming eventually fueled pushback, Duncan told a room of the nation’s state education chiefs that the complaints were coming from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [realize] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” Duncan told the American Society of Newspaper Editors — while charging them with cracking down on the skeptics — that the Common Core pushback could be chalked up to a misinformed, ideological “fringe.”

There was Duncan’s war on the school-voucher program in Washington, D.C. Despite serving a president who had advertised his openness to school vouchers during the 2008 campaign, and despite compelling evidence that students enrolled in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program were much more likely to graduate high school and enter college, Duncan continuously fought to defund and terminate the program. 

There was the hypocrisy. Duncan supports charter schooling and dismisses charter-school critics, but when the congressional Republicans pushed to make federal Title I funds for low-income students portable to charter schools, he blasted them as enemies of public education. Duncan says that collective bargaining needs to be reformed but went out of his way to kneecap Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for doing just that. Duncan told Congress more than a half-dozen years ago that NCLB was broken and that the federal government needed to loosen its grip on schools, but he has savaged Hill Republicans as mean-spirited and anti-children as they have worked to fix NCLB and reduce the federal role.

#related#There was Duncan’s turning the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) into an invasive army of lawyers bent on micro-managing local schools. Duncan took the crucial but delicate question of how schools can fairly and equitably maintain a safe, orderly environment and infused it with the cause of racial grievance. Duncan’s s OCR announced that if student discipline has “a disparate impact” on students of different races, it ”can result in unlawful discrimination . . . [even] if a policy is neutral on its face” and “is administered in an evenhanded manner.” The result was pressure on schools to adopt strict racial quotas for school discipline. Michael Greve of the George Washington School of Law observed, “All this goes a million miles beyond the requirements of the Constitution; of Title VI; and even of OCR’s own (legally dubious) disparate impact regulations.”

There were the grand calls to supersize the federal role. In tandem with the president, Duncan proposed spending tens of billions on a new federal pre-K initiative, one that would come with thousands of federal regulations governing the most minute details of preschool. Duncan called for the U.S. Department of Education to rate every public and private college and university — and to condition student eligibility for federal aid on the resulting scores. He called for the federal government to make community college “free” — creating a vast new federal entitlement that would manage to loosen fiscal discipline at community colleges while inviting new rounds of federal regulation.

There’s plenty more, but I think the point is made. The Obama presidency has proven divisive in nearly every policy arena. While some observers have imagined that education was the exception to the rule, those disconcerted by the abuse of executive discretion, massive expansion of federal authority, and exacerbation of identity politics will find that Duncan’s Department of Education was very much the rule. While there’s not much value in merely griping about bad policies or squandered opportunities, setting the record straight is crucial. How we understand Duncan’s legacy will color how we understand Obama’s education efforts and the lessons we draw for federal policy going forward.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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