‘PBS Newshour’ Sizes Up Arne Duncan

By Mark Walsh — March 29, 2014 2 min read
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The “PBS Newshour” did a 9-minute segment on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Friday, portraying him as more powerful than any previous secretary and highlighting critics who worry about his exercise of No Child Left Behind waivers and his role in funding tests for the Common Core State Standards.

“When the economy tanked in 2009, Secretary Duncan’s power over education increased dramatically,” correspondent John Merrow says, referring to the federal stimulus package that led to nearly $5 billion in discretionary spending overseen by Duncan and the Race to the Top competition.

“No previous secretary of education had ever had such power,” says Merrow, the “Newshour”'s special correspondent for education. (Merrow takes the long view, but Education Week‘s Michele McNeil wrote last fall that Duncan’s leverage was actually waning because “his stack of bargaining chips is dwindling.”)

Merrow interviews critics of the secretary from both the right and left, as well as Duncan himself.

“When you give the cabinet secretary a big pile of money, and then he starts changing policy, in effect dictating policy, that’s acting like a superintendent,” U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, tells Merrow, in reference to the policy conditions Duncan has imposed on the states in exchange for waivers from NCLB requirements.

Diane Ravitch, the education historian, former federal education official, and liberal critic of school privatization, says: “We now have local communities asking their state for permission, and the state asking Arne Duncan for permission, and Arne Duncan as the nation’s school superintendent.”

Duncan tells Merrow: “Previous secretaries have provided waivers to states on various things, so this is, again--legally, folks are happy to challenge this if they want to, but we’re on strong, strong, solid footing there.”

Merrow has posted his full interviews with Duncan, Kline, Ravitch, and Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University, on his Learning Matters Website.

Merrow goes all the way back to the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to explain the groundwork for NCLB, Race to the Top, the common-core standards, and the federal role in the testing for the core standards. With strong visuals, that makes the piece a good primer for explaining the federal role in education that many in the public don’t fully understand.

On the common core, Merrow notes the recent news that Indiana was dropping out, and both Kline and Ravitch express fears that the federal support for testing under the standards could lead to a slippery slope of federal control over curriculum.

Ravitch acknowledges there is a federal law prohibiting that, but she says “testing controls curriculum.”

“What is tested is what gets taught,” Ravitch says. “Everybody knows that.”

Duncan says, “It’s important to have high standards. We have encouraged that. How you teach to those higher standards, the curriculum behind that, we have never touched that, never have, never will do that.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.