Politico’s ‘The Agenda’ Magazine Offers Wonky Package on Education

By Mark Walsh — September 24, 2015 3 min read
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An online magazine published under the banner of Politico published an education issue this week full of interesting, but slightly wonky, pieces.

The Agenda—described by Politico as its “new real-time policy magazine"—includes a profile of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a “dive” into the bureaucracy of the Department of Education, and a story about how the federal department has been eliminated before. (More on all of those below.)

Michael Grunwald, editor-at-large of The Agenda and a former correspondent for Time magazine, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, has the lead article in the education package—the Duncan profile.

“In a cynical town of posturing and spin, Duncan has earned a reputation for saying what he means and doing what he says,” Grunwald writes in “Arne Duncan’s Wars.” “At the same time, he has faced growing dissatisfaction with what he has said and what he has done. Duncan has driven far more change than any previous education secretary, but as he heads into the home stretch of the Obama administration, much of that legacy is at risk.”

The piece leads off with a scene of Grunwald interviewing Education Department Undersecretary Ted Mitchell, who starts crying at the end of a mostly dull policy interview. “I can’t let you leave without telling you what a privilege it has been to work with Arne,” Mitchell told Grunwald through his tears.

Grunwald writes that “It’s clear that the final legislation [to re-authorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] will weaken the Education Department, giving states much more power to set standards and determine what to do if kids don’t meet them, but Duncan is lobbying to make sure it does not leave states entirely to their own devices.”

Meanwhile, in the article about the bureaucracy that is the Education Department, Danny Vinik writes about the bevy of small programs that many consider inefficient or failures but are saved year after year by patrons in Congress.

And in “Kill the Department of Ed.? It’s been done.,” Kevin Kosar, an education policy historian, recounts how Congress created a federal Education Department in 1867 and killed it a year later. The “meek agency” had a commissioner and three clerks, and was charged by law with “collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the United States.” The agency also was to publish useful information on the “organization and operation” of school systems and “promote the case of education throughout the country,” Kosar notes.

Many in Congress were worried about this federal power grab, and by 1868, the department was demoted to an office in the Department of the Interior. (The piece has a nifty graphic describing federal efforts in education going back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1785.)

The Agenda education issue has several other pieces, including a survey of education leaders, a story about what constitutes fresh food in school lunches, and a look at virtual schools.

The Agenda is not the same as Politico Magazine, a more high-profile product of the Arlington, Va.-based political news operation. The Agenda was announced last year by Politico Editor Susan B. Glasser. One Politico insider told Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple that The Agenda was to Politico Pro—the organization’s especially wonky newsletter operation that includes an education product—as Politico Magazine was to the main Politico.

In other words, The Agenda seems to be as inside-the-Beltway as Politico Pro, but with longer stories. While some of the stories in the education issue are obvious story ideas, they are executed nicely.

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